Shawn Wilbur: Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

Taking a break from my usually more historical postings, today I reproduce a blogpost by Shawn Wilbur, prompted by recent discussions regarding alleged personal and political connections between the far right and anarchism. The problem of egoists, Nietzschean “supermen,” “national syndicalists,” “national anarchists,” and the like associating themselves with anarchism goes back at least to the 1890s, when Malatesta argued that anarchy without “socialist content… would be worthy of ‘supermen’ in Nietzsche’s and [the proto-fascist Gabriele] D’Annunzio’s fashion and, contradicting itself, would turn into aristocratism and tyranny” (Complete Works, Vol. 3, p. 293). Attempts by the far right to co-opt anarchists (and anarchism) were not limited to individualist anarchism, nor are they limited today to the so-called “post-left” anarchist milieu. The original Fascists in Italy attempted to recruit syndicalists (without as much success as some “post-leftist” anarchists would have it), and in France they attempted to appropriate the legacy of Proudhon, among other things. In Russia, “national bolsheviks” and “national anarchists” claim Bakunin as a forerunner, quoting from his various anti-semitic outbursts in support of  their “white nationalism.” But it is a completely fallacious leap to then argue that anarchism is an incipiently fascist doctrine, “contaminated” by inherently fascist ideas because fascists sometimes like to court self-proclaimed anarchists or to misappropriate anarchist ideas and tactics, such as direct action, for their own purposes.

Shawn Wilbur’s Contr’un: Anarchist Theory

Notes on the Anarchist Culture Wars

With regard to the “courting” of anarchists by authoritarians, and as someone who has been so courted on various occasions, it seems to me that the key vulnerability among radicals is not attraction to certain authors or ideas, but particular ways of interacting with ideas. And that vulnerability is widespread in the milieu, with perhaps the more dangerous instances involving ideas that are not themselves so obviously edgy.

What is required for someone to slide from Stirner toward fascism, from Proudhon toward monarchy, from Bakunin toward actual dictatorship, etc. is for a few, generally uncharacteristic bits of their thought to be disconnected from their context, elevated in importance and then associated with similarly disconnected bits of authoritarian thought, with some sort of eclecticism, “syncretism” or outright opportunism as the guiding philosophy. The alt-right has made this sort of opportunist, hodge-podge thinking a fairly explicit policy. Unfortunately, many radicals also engage in it, without much sense of the stakes. The result is a convergence of people who aren’t really all that interested in ideas, except as potential capital to put behind projects with some less philosophical basis or as a sort of personal adornment. And these people, whether they identify with the right or the left, tend to tell a story about “theory” that assumes ideas are generally mixable. No idea is really very distant from any other, provided you simply disregard the bits that establish distance (and, of course, clarity.)

(These folks will “use” any idea, no matter how radical, provided they can break off some little bit of it that appeals to their audience of people who don’t care much. We can never stop these people from this kind of annoying, but ultimately trivial appropriation. All we can do is be clearer than they are, so that people who actually do care aren’t mislead. You never convince opportunists that they are wrong, because that’s not ultimately what it’s about. You can, however, demonstrate the weaknesses of opportunism as a mode of thought.)

Sometimes these folks find common cause with people who think that ideas are indeed important, but draw firm lines between ideas that they think of as “bad” or “dangerous” and some set of ideas that seem to them safe, good, etc. There’s a kind of narrow rationalism that is constantly concerned that “something could go wrong” if we have unsafe thoughts or make use of ideas and ways of thinking unapproved by its particular standards. A lot of well-meaning and unconsciously authoritarian would-be radicals fall into this camp. Some of them are quite serious about the defense of their particular sort of approved thinking and some just have a low tolerance for anything that might seem “problematic,” “sketchy” or “fucked up.”

When we do find people swept from one position to another, I suspect these are often people who rather enjoy the fact that many ideas are dangerous, but aren’t so concerned about using ideas in any very serious way. Philosophy, like ideology, can be just another recreational drug. When we “lose” these people, we probably have to acknowledge that we only had them in a very limited sense in the first place.

None of these groups, it seems to me, are very well situated to deal with the notion of anarchy, which is necessarily (in the short term certainly, but probably also in the longest of terms) a truly dangerous idea. Now, some self-proclaimed “anarchists” are happy to do without the notion of anarchy, but as far as I can see that’s just giving up before you get started. But there are also people who look at Stirner (or something they’ve heard about egoism) and think “that’s problematic,” hear the usual criticisms of Proudhon and Bakunin and think “that’s fucked up,” worry about what might “go wrong” with poststructuralism, etc., but then look at anarchy and think “nothing to worry about here, folks.” But we often find that these folks also consider “democracy” a safe, positive notion, will find room in their nominally “anarchist” theory for authority, hierarchy, etc. It’s easy to be tolerant of this sort of thing as “rookie mistakes,” which ought to be fixed by more exposure to anarchist thought — except that there doesn’t seem to be much in the milieu pushing anarchists towards any more complex engagement, while there is perhaps an increasing resistance.

When it comes right down to it, the only people I have much faith in when it comes to a lasting commitment to anarchist thought and practice are those who are both serious about ideas (although I recognize a lot of ways this seriousness might manifest itself) — and specifically serious about anarchist ideas and anarchistic ways of thinking — and ready to acknowledge that the particular ideas that separate anarchism from the rest of the political or social philosophies out there, anarchy chief among them, are not “safe.” This isn’t a question of an intellectual vanguard or any sort of commitment that should exclude the average working stiff. We just shouldn’t be surprised that committing to even the serious contemplation of anarchy, which involves a radical break with the principles that govern the majority of our current relations and institutions, takes some mental effort, no matter where we’re starting from. You don’t have to know that Proudhon came to anarchy as a result of research into “the criterion” of certainty, but you probably do have to come to terms, in one way or another, that the “definitive” and “authoritative” are at least going to have to undergo some reworking in an anarchistic context, if they don’t simply get swept away with the authoritarian.

But if you can come to terms with anarchy, then you have not only gained an ideal, but presumably also mastered a skill. And that skill is, it seems to me, the one that best protects us whenever we are dealing with “dangerous” ideas. It might even simply involve the recognition that all ideas are dangerous, which is a pretty good inoculation against all the various systems and schemes that are peddled from every direction.

Shawn Wilbur

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Malatesta: Looking Forward

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As 2016 draws to a close, some more inspiring words from Errico Malatesta. Originally published in 1897 after the Italian parliamentary elections, Malatesta’s comments are particularly appropriate following the failed Italian constitutional referendum, the 2016 US elections, and the Brexit vote in the UK. As Malatesta argues, it is not enough to preach abstention – anarchists most also present a viable alternative to electoral strategies for change. This translation is taken from the just published Volume Three of the Complete Works of Malatesta, “A Long and Patient Work: The Anarchist Socialism of L’Agitazione, 1897-1898,” expertly edited by Davide Turcato and published by AK Press. Although this is Volume Three of a ten volume collection, it is the first of the ten volumes to appear, given the importance of the 1897-1898 period in the development of Malatesta’s approach to anarchism and revolution. I included several selections by Malatesta in Volume One of  Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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Point of Honor: To the Comrades

The elections are over.

We—by which we mean all the comrades—have done all we could to alert the people to the deceitfulness and harm implicit in the electoral contest—and we did well. But now another more important duty is incumbent on us: demonstrating—with facts and with results—that our tactics are better than those of the parliamentarists, that we mean to be and are already, not merely a negative force, but an active, functioning, effective force in the fight for the emancipation of the proletariat.

We oppose the parliamentary socialists, and are right to do so, since in their program and in their tactics lurk the seeds of a fresh oppression; and, should they succeed, the government principle that they cling to and bolster would destroy the principle of social equality and usher in a fresh age of class struggles. However, in order to be entitled to oppose them, we must do better than them.

Being right in theory, cherishing loftier ideals, criticizing others, foreseeing the harmful consequences from incomplete and contradictory programs, is not enough. In fact, if everything is confined to theory and criticism and does not offer a jumping-off point for an activity that seeks out and creates the conditions for the implementation of a better program, then our action turns out to be harmful, in practice, because it hobbles the efforts of others, to the benefit of our common foes.

Preventing, through our propaganda, the people from sending socialists and republicans into parliament (since those who are the most accessible to our propaganda are the very people who, but for us, would cast their votes for anti-monarchy candidates) is an excellent outcome as long we manage to turn whomever we lure away from the fetishism of the ballot box into a conscious and active fighter for genuine, complete emancipation.

Otherwise, we would have served and would serve the interests of the monarchy and the conservatives!

Let us all ponder this point. What is at stake is the interest of our cause and our honor as men and as a party.

The isolated, casual propaganda that is often mounted as a concession to one’s conscience, or as merely an outlet for a desire to argue, is of little or no use. Given the unconscious, impoverished conditions in which the masses find themselves, and all the forces lined up against us, this propaganda is forgotten and evaporates before it can build up any impact and make any headway. The terrain is too hard for seeds scattered randomly to germinate and put down roots.

We are after unrelenting, patient, coordinated effort tailored to a range of settings and a variety of circumstances. Each of us must be able to depend on the cooperation of all the rest; and wherever a seed has been thrown out, there must follow solicitous attention from the grower in the tending and protection of it until such time as it blossoms as a plant capable of surviving on its own and bringing forth further fertile seeds.

In Italy, there are millions of proletarians who are still blind instruments in the hands of the priests. There are millions who, while hating the master intensely, are persuaded that one cannot live without masters, and they are incapable of imagining and yearning for any other emancipation than their becoming masters in their turn and exploiting their fellow wretches.

There are vast stretches—actually most of the landmass of Italy—where our message has never been heard or, if perchance it has made it there, it has left no discernible trace behind.

Though only a few, there are workers’ organizations and we are alien to them.

Strikes occur and, caught unprepared, we are neither able to help the workers in their struggle nor profit from the mental unrest to spread our ideas.

Popular upheavals and near-insurrections happen and nobody gives us a thought.

Then comes the persecution, and we are imprisoned, deported in our hundreds or thousands, and we find ourselves powerless to even draw the public’s attention to the infamies visited upon us, let alone to do anything else.

To work, comrades! The task is a big one! To work, everyone!

Errico Malatesta

Translated from “Obbligo d’onore: Ai compagni,” L’Agitazione (Ancona) 1, no. 4 (April 4, 1897).

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Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

Bakunin: Beware Anarchist!

Beware Bakunin: Anarchist!

This is my more detailed reply to René Berthier’s defence of his claim that the anarchist movements that emerged in the 1870s from the struggles and debates within the International Workingmen’s Association constituted some kind of break with Bakunin’s revolutionary socialism. My title is a play on Augustin Souchy’s autobiography, Beware Anarchist! A Life of Freedom. Souchy was a German anarcho-syndicalist and anti-militarist. His best known book in English is probably With the Peasants of Aragon, in which he describes the revolutionary collectives in the Aragon region of Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

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Recently, René Berthier, or a friend of his, posted on my blog and other anarchist websites some comments directed against two of my recent posts: first, a selection of quotations from Bakunin in which he clearly identifies himself as an anarchist who advocated some form (or forms) of anarchy; and second, Max Nettlau’s 1935 biographical sketch of James Guillaume, in which Nettlau criticizes Guillaume’s claim that the true inheritors of Bakunin’s legacy were the revolutionary syndicalists. One of Nettlau’s main points was that Bakunin never limited himself to advocating syndicalist methods; he also advocated insurrection and the revolutionary commune. To Nettlau, Bakunin’s anarchism was broader than Guillaume’s revolutionary syndicalism, and cannot be reduced to it; although Bakunin’s anarchism contained syndicalist elements, it also contained much more than that.

It is neither “conventional, conservative” nor being “deprived of critical spirit” to criticize Berthier’s revisionist view of Bakunin, and his claim that there is some kind of break, conceptual, tactical or otherwise, between Bakunin and the anarchists who came after him. In fact, it is not even possible to argue that many of these anarchists came after Bakunin — they came with him during the conflicts within the International over the proper direction of European working class movements for self-emancipation. Malatesta clearly comes to mind, as do Reclus, Cafiero, and the Spanish anarchists who fought with Bakunin within the International against the Marxists and Blanquists and, outside of the International, against the bourgeois republicans, the Mazzinians, the neo-Jacobins, the reformists and the state socialists.

Now let’s deal with the Bakunin quotations that Berthier tries to discount in order to support his claim that there was a break between Bakunin’s “revolutionary socialism” and the self-proclaimed anarchist groups and movements of the 1870s (and beyond).

First, he corrects the Maximoff translation of a letter in Italian where Bakunin in fact referred to “anarchy” instead of “anarchism.” Fair enough. Then he emphasizes the use by Bakunin of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense, meaning disorder or chaos. This doesn’t have much bearing on whether Bakunin can be described as an anarchist, or whether the self-proclaimed anarchists of the 1870s advocated something so distinctive from what Bakunin advocated that Berthier can show that there was a “break” between them and Bakunin. Even if Bakunin only advocated “anarchy” in a negative sense, without giving it any positive content, that would still make him some kind of anarchist.

The first problem with the argument regarding Bakunin’s use of the word “anarchy” in a negative sense is that Bakunin regarded anarchy or disorder as something that was inevitable during revolutionary upheavals. Consequently, rather than seeking to suppress anarchy in this sense, as revolutionary governments inevitably sought to do, Bakunin invoked this kind of anarchy as a destructive force that revolutionaries could use to sweep away the existing social order. Anarchy, as destructive force, actually played, or should play, a positive role in the revolutionary process. It is both a destructive and a creative force. One cannot dismiss this aspect of Bakunin’s thought simply by referring to it as “questionable” Hegelian dialectics.

Looking at some of the quotations I relied on, one can see, sometimes in the same passage, how Bakunin refers to anarchy in both a negative and a positive sense, as a destructive and creative force, and as the end result of the revolutionary process. Let’s begin by focusing on three passages that Berthier singles out to show how mistaken I was to rely on them in order to show that Bakunin was an anarchist.

The first is the passage regarding “anarchy,” in the sense of disorder, leading either to enslavement or to the full emancipation of the people (Berthier simply ignores the latter part of the quotation, which I have italicized):

“The lack of a government begets anarchy, and anarchy leads to the destruction of the State, that is, to the enslavement of the country by another State, as was the case with the unfortunate Poland, or the full emancipation of the toiling people and the abolition of classes, which, we hope, will soon take place all over Europe.

Thus, anarchy as a destructive force can destroy a particular state, but that destruction can lead to two diametrically opposed things: it may ultimately result in another state enslaving the country in which the state has been destroyed, as in Poland, or it may lead to something altogether different, the complete emancipation of the people. Because Bakunin sought to avoid the replacement of one state by another, foreign or otherwise, his argument was that revolutionaries should harness the destructive power of anarchy not only to destroy the state but to ensure that the end result was not the reconstitution of the state, but its permanent abolition, the full emancipation of the people and the abolition of classes, a positive form of anarchy.

This is made clear by the second passage Berthier focuses on, the passage that I used as part of the title to my book on the First International and the origins of the anarchist movement:

“We do not fear anarchy, we invoke it. For we are convinced that anarchy, meaning the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people, must spring from liberty, equality, the new social order, and the force of the revolution itself against the reaction. There is no doubt that this new life—the popular revolution—will in good time organize itself, but it will create its revolutionary organization from the bottom up, from the circumference to the center, in accordance with the principle of liberty, and not from the top down or from the center to the circumference in the manner of all authority.”

Berthier suggests that this quotation constituted a poor choice for the title to my book about the International because in it, Bakunin is supposedly using the word “anarchy” in a purely negative sense, as nothing more than “the chaos following the collapse of a social system.” But if one reads the passage carefully, Bakunin defines “anarchy” as the positive result of the revolutionary upheaval, “the unrestricted manifestation of the liberated life of the people,” not simply the means to create that “liberated life.” “Anarchy,” conceived as the realization of the liberated life of the people, springs from (i.e. is the result of) liberty, equality, the new social order and the force of the revolution itself. Besides lending itself as a catchy title to a book, this passage shows that Bakunin used anarchy in a positive sense to describe the result of a successful revolution, not simply in a more negative sense of either chaos or destructive force.

The third passage is the one where I relied on Maximoff’s translation of “anarchy” into “anarchism.” However, even after making that correction, the passage still constitutes a use by Bakunin of “anarchy” in a more positive sense, not in the sense of “chaos,” as Berthier claims:

“Outside of the Mazzinian system, which is the system of the republic in the form of a State, there is no other system but that of the republic as a commune, the republic as a federation, a Socialist and a genuine people’s republic — the system of Anarchy. It is the politics of the Social Revolution, which aims at the abolition of the State, and the economic, altogether free organization of the people, an organization from below upward, by means of a federation.”

What is the “system of Anarchy” of which Bakunin writes? It is the republic as a socialist commune and federation, the “free organization of the people… from below upward, by means of a federation.” This is a positive form of anarchy. But “anarchy” is also “the abolition of the State,” which is only a negative form of “anarchy” in the sense that destruction is the negation of something existing (the state), but the result is not something negative, either “anarchy” in the sense of chaos or a reconstituted state, but something positive, the federation of socialist communes.

Thus, a close examination of these passages shows that it is Berthier, not me, who “most of the time (not always, though) misinterprets what Bakunin really says.”

Consider also the very title to Bakunin’s last published work, Statism and Anarchy. Surely Bakunin was not arguing that the alternative to Statism was anarchy conceived as disorder, chaos and destruction.

Berthier also claims that “Bakunin felt really uneasy” in using the word “anarchist.” However, at another point he says instead that when Bakunin used the words “anarchy” or “anarchist,” he felt it “necessary to add an explanation, as if the concept was not immediately understandable by the reader.” This latter explanation makes more sense, and does not imply any kind of “uneasiness” on Bakunin’s part. At the time Bakunin wrote these various passages, largely between 1868 and 1873, the only “anarchist” with whom anyone would likely have been familiar would have been Proudhon, who distanced himself from his anarchist stance of the 1840s in his later works, for a variety of reasons (police censorship, pessimism regarding the prospect for positive social change, and so forth).

There were no anarchist movements, nor very many people who identified themselves as anarchists. Anarchist ideas were in the process of development by Bakunin and others. As most people would be unfamiliar with anarchist ideas, and would naturally assume that “anarchy” only meant chaos and disorder, it became necessary for the early revolutionary anarchists, including Bakunin, to explain what they meant when they described themselves as such.

Bakunin first described himself as an anarchist in the Italian paper, Libertà e Giustizia, in September 1867, when he distinguished himself from Pan-Slavists, describing them as “unitarians at all costs, always preferring public order to freedom”; whereas, Bakunin wrote, “I am an anarchist and prefer freedom to public order” (W. Eckhardt, The First Socialist Schism, p. 453, n. 47). And we see in the passages that I cited in my earlier post that Bakunin continued to identify himself as an anarchist in order to distinguish his views from those of his political opponents, whether Pan-Slavists, Blanquists, Marxists, Mazzini or other supporters of some kind of state power.

Since Bakunin’s death, other anarchists have continued to use the label to distinguish themselves from other revolutionaries, citing many of the same grounds cited by Bakunin: preferring freedom to “public order” (see for example Kropotkin’s essay, “Order,” in Words of a Rebel); advocating “anarchy” as both a method and as a goal (Malatesta, in his pamphlet, Anarchy, among many other writings); rejecting any participation in bourgeois politics; rejecting the state, even as a transitional power; rejecting a privileged role for the urban or industrial proletariat; and rejecting government by legislation and the so-called “rule of law.” This is what made these anarchists either Bakunin’s comrades in arms, for those who were his contemporaries, or his ideological successors.

I would like to conclude with some remarks regarding Berthier’s argument that the anarchists of the 1870s broke with Bakunin’s advocacy of a “pluralist” International. While Bakunin certainly opposed the International adopting a compulsory political program, he also lobbied incessantly for his own anarchist program, not to impose it on others, but to convince them to adopt it. His position is illustrated by this quotation from a fragment from the Knouto-Germanic Empire (Oeuvres, Vol. 6, p. 430):

“A political program has value only when, coming out of vague generalities, it determines precisely the institutions it proposes in place of those which it wants to overthrow or reform. Such is the program of Mr. Marx. It is a complete scaffolding of highly centralized and authoritarian economic and political institutions, no doubt sanctioned, like all despotic institutions in modern society, by universal suffrage, but nevertheless subjected to a very strong government, to use the expressions of Mr. Engels, the alter ego of Mr. Marx, the confidant of the legislator.

“But why is it precisely this program that is supposed to be officially introduced, necessarily, in the statutes of the International? Why not the Blanquists? Why not ours? Could it be because Mr. Marx invented it? That is not a reason. Or because the workers of Germany seem to accept it? But the anarchic program is accepted, with very few exceptions, by all the Latin Federations; the Slavs will never accept any other.”

It was around this time that Bakunin wrote the program for the Slav Section of the International in Zurich, which expressly accepted “the Anarchist revolutionary programme,” and called for the “abolition of all States.” There can be no question regarding Bakunin’s role in convincing many Spanish, Italian, Swiss, French and Russian members of the International to adopt an anarchist stance.

Furthermore, it was Bakunin himself who wrote the St. Imier Congress resolutions in September 1872 that:

“the aspirations of the proletariat can have no purpose other than the establishment of an absolutely free economic organization and federation, founded upon the labour and equality of all and absolutely independent of all political government… ”

Therefore, “the destruction of all political power is the first duty of the proletariat,” and “any organization whatsoever of a self-styled provisional and revolutionary political authority for the purpose of ensuring such destruction can be nothing but another fraud, and would be as dangerous to the proletariat as any government now in existence” (reprinted in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas).

From the outset, the anti-authoritarian International adopted an anti-statist position, making it difficult for any sections allied with Marx to participate, and it was Bakunin who authored the resolutions that helped to create that difficulty (of course, Marx and Engels put pressure on the social democratic Internationalists to boycott the anti-authoritarian International in any event). The resolutions at the 1877 Verviers Congress of the anti-authoritarian International were not really any different in substance from the resolutions Bakunin wrote for the St. Imier Congress five years earlier. The Verviers delegates simply made it clear that in addition to rejecting the state and so-called “revolutionary” government, they also rejected, as had Bakunin himself, the socialist political parties that hoped to achieve political power.

The Belgians who had already moved toward a social democratic position, such as Caesar De Paepe, did not even attend the Verviers Congress, instead choosing to attend the Socialist congress in Ghent. However, in the Verviers region itself, many of the Internationalists continued to support an anarchist approach. The rejection of socialist political parties at the Verviers Congress simply confirmed what was already happening–the Internationalists who had decided to follow the electoral path no longer saw a need for an international association of workers, instead choosing to focus their energies on political activities within their own countries; whereas many of the anarchists who remained in the anti-authoritarian International, such as Malatesta and Kropotkin, continued to see a useful role for the International.

The anarchists did not drive De Paepe and other Belgians out of the International — rather De Paepe and many of the other Belgian Internationalists no longer believed that the International and working class organizations to which its members belonged, from resistance and mutual aid societies to cooperatives and trade unions, formed the “embryo” of the future socialist society. Rather, as De Paepe himself said at the 1874 Brussels Congress of the anti-authoritarian International, “the reconstitution of society upon the foundation of the industrial group, the organization of the state from below upwards, instead of being the starting point and the signal of the revolution, might not prove to be its more or less remote result.”

Consequently, De Paepe argued that “the proletariat of the large towns” would be compelled “to establish a collective dictatorship over the rest of the population… for a sufficiently long period to sweep away whatever obstacles there may be to the emancipation of the working class” (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 211). De Paepe and other Internationalists had adopted a view virtually indistinguishable from that of Marx, a view to which Bakunin was completely opposed (‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 130).

Who remained in the International who agreed with Bakunin’s anti-statism, his rejection of participation in bourgeois politics, the creation of autonomous working class organizations that would provide the basis for workers’ self-management, and the use of insurrectionary means, as well as general strikes, to abolish the state and capitalism in order to create a socialist society based on equality and freedom for all? The anarchists. And it is simply untrue that the anarchists in the anti-authoritarian International were all anti-organizationalists who rejected anything other than affinity group forms of organization.

Even Paul Brousse, who argued against having any kind of coordinating centre for the anti-authoritarian International, was still an advocate of the revolutionary commune (incidentally, Bakunin agreed with the view that the anti-authoritarian International should not have a central coordinating agency, because “[s]ooner or later it would be without fail transformed into a sort of government” — ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’, page 205). The majority of the Spanish anarchists continued to advocate a trade union based working class movement committed to achieving “anarchy” in a positive sense, as did many of the Italian anarchists, such as Malatesta, and some of the French anarchists (see Chapters 9 through 11 of ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’).

Robert Graham

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Malatesta: All or Nothing?

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In these troubled times, I often think back to the situation faced by Errico Malatesta and the Italian anarchists when Mussolini’s Fascists held power in Italy. In this excerpt from an article that Malatesta wrote in 1930, eight years into the Fascist dictatorship, Malatesta argues against an “all or nothing” approach, advocating that one must always try to achieve as much as is practically possible in any given situation consistent with one’s ideals. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s other writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

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All or Nothing?

I am not an advocate of the ‘all or nothing’ theory. I believe that nobody actually behaves in such a way as implied by that theory: it would be impossible.

This is just a slogan used by many to warn about the illusion of petty reforms and alleged concessions from government and masters, and to always remind [one] of the necessity and urgency of the revolutionary act: it is a phrase that can serve, if loosely interpreted, as an incentive to a fight without quarter against every kind of oppressor and exploiter. However, if taken literally, it is plain nonsense.

The ‘all’ is the ideal that gets farther and wider as progress is made, and therefore it can never be reached. The ‘nothing’ would be some abysmally uncivilized state, or at least a supine submission to the present oppression.

I believe that one must take all that can be taken, whether much or little: do whatever is possible today, while always fighting to make possible what today seems impossible.

For instance, if today we cannot get rid of every kind of government, this is not a good reason for taking no interest in defending the few acquired liberties and fighting to gain more of those. If now we cannot completely abolish the capitalist system and the resulting exploitation of the workers, this is no good reason to quit fighting to obtain higher salaries and better working conditions. If we cannot abolish commerce and replace it with the direct exchange among producers, this is no good reason for not seeking the means to escape the exploitation of traders and profiteers as much as possible. If the oppressors’ power and the state of public opinion prevent [us] now from abolishing the prisons and providing any defence against wrongdoers with more humane means, not for this we would lose interest in an action for abolishing the death penalty, life imprisonment, [solitary] confinement and, in general, the most ferocious means of repression by which what is called social justice, but which actually amounts to a barbarian revenge, is exercised. If we cannot abolish the police, not for this we would allow, without protesting and resisting, that the policemen beat the prisoners and allow themselves all sorts of excesses, overstepping the limit prescribed to them by the laws in force themselves…

I am breaking off here, as there are thousands and thousands of cases, both in individual and social life, in which, being unable to obtain ‘all’, one has to try and get as much as possible.

At this point, the question of fundamental importance arises about the best way of defending what one has got and fighting to obtain more; for there is one way that weakens and kills the spirit of independence and the consciousness of one’s own rights, thus compromising the future and the present itself, while there is another way that uses every tiny victory to make greater demands, thus preparing minds and the environment [for] the longed-for complete emancipation.

What constitutes the characteristic, the raison d’etre of anarchism, is the conviction that the governments — dictatorships, parliaments, etc. — are always instruments of conservation, reaction, oppression; and freedom, justice, well-being for everyone must come from the fight against authority, from free [activity] and free agreement among individuals and groups.

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One problem worries many anarchists nowadays, and rightly so.

As they find it insufficient to work on abstract propaganda and revolutionary technical preparation, which is not always possible and is done without knowing when it will be fruitful, they look for something practical to do here and now, in order to accomplish as much as possible of our ideas, despite the adverse conditions; something that morally and materially helps the anarchists themselves and at the same time serves as an example, a school, an experimental field.

Practical proposals are coming from various sides. They are all good to me, if they appeal to free initiative and to a spirit of solidarity and justice, and tend to take individuals away from the domination of the government and the master. And to avoid wasting time in continuously recurring discussions that never bring new facts or arguments, I would encourage those who have a project to try to immediately accomplish it, as soon as they find support from the minimal necessary number of participants, without waiting, usually in vain, for the support of all or many — experience will show whether those projects were workable, and it will let the vital ones survive and thrive.

Let everyone try the paths they deem best and fittest to their temperament, both today with respect to the little things that can be done in the present environment, and tomorrow in the vast ground that the revolution will offer to our activity. In any case, what is logically mandatory for us all, if we do not want to stop being truly anarchist, is to never surrender our freedom into the hands of an individual or class dictatorship, a despot or a Constituent Assembly; for what depends on us, our freedom must find its foundation in the equal freedom of all.

Errico Malatesta

Adunata, October 4, 1930

malatesta-organization

 

CrimethInc: From Democracy to Freedom

vote for nobody

Last week, I posted a brief section on “community assemblies” from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I raised some concerns regarding proposals for direct democracy that to my mind create structures that are too rigid and will result in a return to political parties and power politics as people coalesce into groups with sometimes conflicting interests (a critique I have more fully developed in my article, “Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology,”[6] in Anarchist Studies, Volume 12, No. 4 (2004)). Previously, I posted some selections from Malatesta, Luce Fabbri and Murray Bookchin setting forth different views about anarchy and democracy. Coincidentally, CrimethInc. has been running a serious of articles providing an anarchist critique of even directly democratic forms of government. Here, I present some excerpts from the section on democracy and freedom.

democracy means police

Anarchist critiques of democracy

Democracy is the most universal political ideal of our day. George Bush invoked it to justify invading Iraq; Obama congratulated the rebels of Tahrir Square for bringing it to Egypt; Occupy Wall Street claimed to have distilled its pure form. From the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea to the autonomous region of Rojava, practically every government and popular movement calls itself democratic.

And what’s the cure for the problems with democracy? Everyone agrees: more democracy. Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a spate of new movements promising to deliver real democracy, in contrast to ostensibly democratic institutions that they describe as exclusive, coercive, and alienating.

Is there a common thread that links all these different kinds of democracy? Which of them is the real one? Can any of them deliver the inclusivity and freedom we associate with the word?

Impelled by our own experiences in directly democratic movements, we’ve returned to these questions. Our conclusion is that the dramatic imbalances in economic and political power that have driven people into the streets from New York City to Sarajevo are not incidental defects in specific democracies, but structural features dating back to the origins of democracy itself; they appear in practically every example of democratic government through the ages. Representative democracy preserved all the bureaucratic apparatus that was originally invented to serve kings; direct democracy tends to recreate it on a smaller scale, even outside the formal structures of the state. Democracy is not the same as self-determination.

To be sure, many good things are regularly described as democratic. This is not an argument against discussions, collectives, assemblies, networks, federations, or working with people you don’t always agree with. The argument, rather, is that when we engage in those practices, if we understand what we are doing as democracy—as a form of participatory government rather than a collective practice of freedom—then sooner or later, we will recreate all the problems associated with less democratic forms of government. This goes for representative democracy and direct democracy alike, and even for consensus process.

Rather than championing democratic procedures as an end in themselves, then, let’s return to the values that drew us to democracy in the first place: egalitarianism, inclusivity, the idea that each person should control her own destiny. If democracy is not the most effective way to actualize these, what is?

As fiercer and fiercer struggles rock today’s democracies, the stakes of this discussion keep getting higher. If we go on trying to replace the prevailing order with a more participatory version of the same thing, we’ll keep ending up right back where we started, and others who share our disillusionment will gravitate towards more authoritarian alternatives. We need a framework that can fulfill the promises democracy has betrayed…

oakland-commune-barricade

Creating Spaces of Encounter

In place of formal sites of centralized decision-making, we propose a variety of spaces of encounter where people may open themselves to each other’s influence and find others who share their priorities. Encounter means mutual transformation: establishing common points of reference, common concerns. The space of encounter is not a representative body vested with the authority to make decisions for others, nor a governing body employing majority rule or consensus. It is an opportunity for people to experiment with acting in different configurations on a voluntary basis.

The spokescouncil immediately preceding the demonstrations against the 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Quebec City was a classic space of encounter. This meeting brought together a wide range of autonomous groups that had converged from around the world to protest the FTAA. Rather than attempting to make binding decisions, the participants introduced the initiatives that their groups had prepared and coordinated for mutual benefit wherever possible.

Much of the decision-making occurred afterwards in informal intergroup discussions. By this means, thousands of people were able to synchronize their actions without need of central leadership, without giving the police much insight into the wide array of plans that were to unfold. Had the spokescouncil employed an organizational model intended to produce unity and centralization, the participants could have spent the entire night fruitlessly arguing about goals, strategy, and which tactics to allow.

Most of the social movements of the past two decades have been hybrid models juxtaposing spaces of encounter with some form of democracy. In Occupy, for example, the encampments served as open-ended spaces of encounter, while the general assemblies were formally intended to function as directly democratic decision-making bodies. Most of those movements achieved their greatest effects because the encounters they facilitated opened up opportunities for autonomous action, not because they centralized group activity through direct democracy.16

Many of the decisions that gave Occupy Oakland a greater impact than other Occupy encampments, including the refusal to negotiate with the city government and the militant reaction to the first eviction, were the result of autonomous initiatives, not consensus process. Meanwhile, some occupiers interpreted consensus process as a sort of decentralized legal framework in which any action undertaken by any participant in the occupation should require the consent of every other participant.

As one participant recalls, “One of the first times the police tried to enter the camp at Occupy Oakland, they were immediately surrounded and shouted at by a group of about twenty people. Some other people weren’t happy about this. The most vocal of these pacifists placed himself in front of those confronting the police, crossed his forearms in the X that symbolizes strong disagreement in the sign language of consensus process, and said ‘You can’t do this! I block you!’ For him, consensus was a tool of horizontal control, giving everyone the right to suppress whichever of others’ actions they found disagreeable.” If we approach the encounter as the driving force of these movements, rather than as a raw material to be shaped through democratic process, it might help us to prioritize what we do best.

Anarchists frustrated by the contradictions of democratic discourse have sometimes withdrawn to organize themselves according to preexisting affinity alone. Yet segregation breeds stagnation and fractiousness. It is better to organize on the basis of our conditions and needs so we come into contact with all the others who share them. Only when we understand ourselves as nodes within dynamic collectivities, rather than discrete entities possessed of static interests, can we make sense of the rapid metamorphoses that people undergo in the course of experiences like the Occupy movement—and the tremendous power of the encounter to transform us if we open ourselves to it.

democracy autonomy

The Turkish Anarchist Movement

DAF -may 1st march

In Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included material by Kurdish anarchists and about anarchist influences on the Kurdish liberation movement. Space considerations prevented me from including material from the anarchist movement within Turkey. Periodically, I have been posting material from the Turkish anarchist movement about events in Turkey and in Kurdish areas where the Kurds are struggling to establish a freer and more just society. Below, I reproduce excerpts from a May 2015 interview with anarchists from the Turkish Devrimci Anarşist Faaliyet (DAF, or Revolutionary Anarchist Action), describing the multi-faceted approach taken by anarchists in Turkey, supporting and participating in workers’ and women’s struggles, the ecology movement, the cooperative movement, the anti-militarist movement, and supporting the Kurdish movement against oppression, whether by the Turkish and Syrian states, or by ISIS. The DAF anarchists interviewed refer to the influence of Errico Malatesta (1853-1932) on their approach. Malatesta’s ideas about the social struggle have been rearticulated by Davide Turcato in his book, Making Sense of Anarchism, which I recently excerpted on this blog.

DAF marchers

Building an Anarchist Movement in Turkey

The main issue for DAF is to organize anarchism within society. We try to socialize anarchism with struggle on the streets. This is what we give importance to. For nearly nine years we have been doing this.

On an ideological level we have a holistic perspective. We don’t have a hierarchical perspective on struggles. We think workers’ struggle is important but not more important than the Kurdish struggle or women’s struggles or ecological struggles.

Capitalism tries to divide these struggles. If the enemy is attacking us in a holistic way we have to approach it in a holistic way.

Anarchy has a bad meaning for most people in society. It has a link with terrorism and bombs. We want to legitimize anarchism by linking it to making arguments for struggles against companies and for ecology. Sometimes we try to focus on the links between the state, companies and ecological damages, like the thing that Corporate Watch does.

We like to present anarchy as an organized struggle. We have shown people on the streets the organized approach to anarchism.

From 1989 to 2000 anarchism was about image. About wearing black, piercings and Mohawks. This is what people saw. After 2000, people started to see anarchists who were part of women’s struggles and workers’ struggles.

We are not taking anarchism from Europe as an imitation. Other anarchists have approached anarchism as an imitation of US or European anarchism or as an underground culture. If we want to make anarchism a social movement, it must change.

DAF’s collectives are Anarchist Youth, Anarchist Women, 26A cafe, Patika ecological collective and high school anarchist action (LAF). These self-organizations work together but have their own decision-making processes.

Anarchist Youth makes connections between young workers and university students and their struggles. Anarchist Women focuses on patriarchy and violence toward women. For example, a woman was murdered by a man and set on fire last February. On 25 November there were big protests against violence against women.

LAF criticises education and schooling in itself and tries to socialize this way of thinking in high schools. LAF also looks at ecological and feminist issues, including when young women are murdered by their husbands.

PATIKA ecological collective protests against hydro electric dams in the Black Sea region or Hasankey [where the Ilisu dam is being built]. Sometimes there is fighting to prevent these plants from being built.

26A Café is a self organization focusing on anti-capitalist economy. Cafes were opened in 2009 in Taksim and 2011 in Kadıköy [both in Istanbul]. The cafes are run by volunteers. They are aimed at creating an economic model in the place where oppressed people are living. It’s important to show people concrete examples of an anarchist economy, without bosses or capitalist aims. We talk to people about why we don’t sell the big capitalist brands like Coca Cola. Of course the products we sell have a relation to capitalism but things like Coke are symbols of capitalism. We want to progress away from not-consuming and move towards alternative economies and ways of producing.

Another self organization, PAY-DA – ‘Sharing and solidarity’ – has a building in Kadıköy, which is used for meetings and producing the Meydan newspaper. PAY-DA gives meals to people three times a day. It’s open to anarchists and comrades. The aim of PAY-DA is to become a cooperative, open to everybody. We try to create a bond which also involves the producers in the villages. We aim to have links with these producers and show them another economic model. We try to evolve these economic relations away from money relations. The producers are suffering from the capitalist economy. We are in the first steps of this cooperative and we are looking for producers to work with.

All of these projects are related to DAF’s ideology. This model has a connection with Malatesta’s binary model of organization.

These are anarchist organizations but sometimes people who aren’t anarchists join these struggles because they know ecological or women’s struggles, and then at the end they will learn about anarchism. It’s an evolving process.

As DAF we are trying to organize our lives. This is the only way that we can touch the people who are oppressed by capitalism.

There is also the Conscientious Objectors’ Association, which is organized with other groups, not just anarchists. Our involvement in this has a relation with our perspective on Kurdistan. We organize anti-militarist action in Turkey outside of military bases on 15 May, conscientious objector’s day. In Turkey the military is related to state culture. If you don’t do your military duty, you won’t find a job and it’s difficult to find someone to marry because they ask if you’ve been to the army. If you have been to the army, you’re a ‘man’. People see the state as the ‘Fatherland’. On your CV they ask whether you did military service. ‘Every Turk is born a soldier’ is a popular slogan in Turkey.

DAF-1-MAY

Making Sense of Malatesta

Making Sense

Davide Turcato’s excellent book, Making Sense of Anarchism: Errico Malatesta’s Experiments with Revolution, 1889-1900, is now out in paperback from AK Press. Davide charts Malatesta’s changing views of anarchism and revolution from the time of the First International to the 20th century, focusing on the period from 1889-1900, when Malatesta developed what Davide describes as a concept of “anarchist gradualism,” which nevertheless remained revolutionary, but acknowledged that anarchists were likely to remain a minority voice on the revolutionary left. Here I reproduce excerpts from Chapter 9, where Davide describes Malatesta’s “anarchist gradualism” in more detail. I included several excerpts from Malatesta’s writings in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

Malatesta’s Anarchist Gradualism

Malatesta summed up the trajectory of Italian anarchism in an article of 1931, a year before his death. He recalled that sixty years earlier, at the outset of their movement, anarchists believed that anarchy and communism could come about as direct, immediate consequence of a victorious insurrection and that their establishment would be the very initial act of the social revolution.

‘This was indeed the idea that, after being accepted a little later by Kropotkin, was popularized and almost established by him as the definitive programme of anarchism’ (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’). That confidence rested on the beliefs that the people had the innate capacity to self-organize and provide for their own interests and that anarchists interpreted the deep instincts of the masses. As time went by, study and experience proved that many such beliefs were wishful thinking.

The historian Richard Hostetter regards that early belief in the ‘instinctive revolutionism of the masses’ as the kernel of an inescapable ‘anarchists’ dilemma’ that by 1882 had already determined the ‘ideological liquidation’ of the Italian International (409–10). However, in spite of the ‘obsequies of the Italian anarchist movement’ that end Hostetter’s book (425), anarchist theory and tactics had more resources and potential than many historians would like to believe.

italiananarchismakpress

As Malatesta remarked in his 1931 article, the key realizations that neither the mass had all the virtues attributed to it, nor that propaganda had all the potential that anarchists had believed, were the starting point of a new outlook on the social struggle. Anarchists realized that only a limited number of people could be converted in a given environment; then, finding new members became increasingly difficult, until economic and political occurrences created new opportunities.

‘After reaching a certain point’, Malatesta observed, ‘numbers could not grow except by watering down and adulterating one’s programme, as happened to the democratic socialists, who were able to gather imposing masses, but only at the price of ceasing to be real socialists.’ Anarchists came to understand their mission differently, based on the conviction that the aspiration to integral freedom, or the ‘anarchist spirit’, was the cause of humanity’s progress, while political and economic privileges pushed humanity back into a barbaric condition, unless such privileges found an obstacle in a more or less conscious anarchism.

Anarchists understood that ‘anarchy could only come gradually, to the extent that the mass could understand and desire it, but it would never come except under the impulse of a more or less consciously anarchist minority, acting so as to prepare the necessary environment’. Remaining anarchists and acting as anarchists in all circumstances, before, during, and after a revolution, was the duty they set to themselves (‘A proposito di “revisionismo”’).

Malatesta had summarized what anarchists were to do before, during, and after a revolution in his 1925 article ‘Gradualismo’. For Malatesta, anarchy could still be seen as absolute perfection, and it was right that this concept should remain in the anarchists’ minds, like a beacon to guide their steps, but obviously such an ideal could not be attained in one sudden leap. Nor, conversely, were anarchists to wait till everyone become anarchist to achieve anarchy.

FAI

On the contrary, they were revolutionary precisely because they believed that under present conditions only a small minority could conceive what anarchy was, while it would be chimerical to hope for a general conversion before the environment changed. Since anarchists could neither convert everybody at once, nor remain in isolation from the rest of society, it was necessary to find ways to apply anarchy, or that degree of anarchy that became gradually feasible, among people who were not anarchist, or were such to different degrees, as soon as a sufficient amount of freedom was won, and anarchist nuclei existed with enough numerical strength and capabilities to be self-sufficient and spread their influence locally.

Before a revolution, Malatesta argued, anarchists were to propagate their ideas and educate as widely as possible, rejecting any compromise with the enemy and keeping ready, at least mentally, to grab any opportunity that could present itself.

What were they to do during a revolution? They could not make a revolution alone, nor that would be advisable, for without mobilizing all spiritual forces, interests, and aspirations of an entire people a revolution would be abortive. And even in the unlikely case that anarchists were able to succeed alone, they would find themselves in the paradoxical position of either pushing forward the revolution in an authoritarian manner or pulling back and letting someone else take control of the situation for their own aims. Thus, anarchists should act in agreement with all progressive forces and attract the largest possible mass, letting the revolution, of which anarchists would only be one component, yield whatever it could.

However, anarchists were not to renounce their specific aim. On the contrary, they were to remain united as anarchists and distinct from other parties and fight for their own programme: the abolition of political power and the expropriation of capitalists. If, notwithstanding their efforts, new powers succeeded in establishing themselves, hindered popular initiative, and imposed their will, anarchists should disavow those powers, induce the people to withhold human and material resources from them, and weaken them as much as possible, until it became possible to overthrow them altogether. In any case, anarchists were to demand, even by force, full autonomy, and the right and means to organize and live their own way, and experiment with the social arrangements they deemed best.

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The aftermath of a revolution, after the overthrow of the existing power and the final triumph of the insurgents, was the terrain in which gradualism was to become really crucial. All practical problems of life were to be studied – concerning production, exchange, means of communication, and so on – and each problem was to be solved in the way that was not only economically most convenient, but also most satisfactory from the point of view of justice and freedom, and left the way open to future improvements.

In case of conflict between different requirements, justice, freedom, and solidarity were to be prioritized over economic convenience. While fighting against authority and privilege, anarchists were to profit [from] all the benefits of civilization. No institution that fulfilled a need, even imperfectly, was to be destroyed until it could be replaced with a better solution to provide for that need. While anarchists were intransigent against any imposition and capitalistic exploitation, they were to be tolerant toward any social plans prevailing in the various groupings, as long as such plans did not infringe the equal freedom of others.

Anarchists were to be content with progressing gradually, in step with the people’s moral development and as material and intellectual means increased, doing at the same time all they could, by study, work, and propaganda, to hasten the development towards ever more advanced ideals. Solutions would be diverse, according to circumstances, but would always conform, as far as anarchists were concerned, to the fundamental principle that coercion and exploitation were to be rejected (‘Gradualismo’).

Ultimately, as Malatesta wrote in an open letter of 1929 to Nestor Makhno, ‘the important thing is not the victory of our plans, our projects, our utopias, which in any case need the confirmation of experience and can be modified by experience, developed and adapted to the real moral and material conditions of the age and place. What matters most is that the people, men and women lose the sheeplike instincts and habits which thousands of years of slavery have instilled in them, and learn to think and act freely. And it is to this great work of moral liberation that the anarchists must specially dedicate themselves’ (‘A proposito della “Plateforme”’).

Davide Turcato

malatesta anarchist spirit

Errico Malatesta: Keep Moving Forward

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

The indefatigable anarchist revolutionary, Errico Malatesta, died at the age of 78 on July 22, 1932, while under house arrest by the Fascists in Italy. He had been active in the international anarchist movement since the time of the First International (see my new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, for further details regarding Malatesta’s role in the Italian Federation of the International and the creation of an Italian anarchist movement). I included several selections from Malatesta in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. The following excerpts are from an article that Malatesta wrote in 1922, when the Fascist counter-revolution was well underway in Italy. Malatesta’s advice regarding the approach anarchists should take in such circumstances, and how to work with people and groups who do not identify as anarchist, remain pertinent today. Davide Turcato, who wrote the introduction to Volume Two of the Anarchism anthology, is now in the process of publishing Malatesta’s collected works in Italian and English.

Malatesta Works

What Is to Be Done?

In recent years we have approached the different avant garde parties with a view to joint action, and we have always been disappointed. Must we for this reason isolate ourselves, or take refuge from impure contacts and stand still trying to move only when we have the necessary strength and in the name of our complete program?

I think not.

Since we cannot make the revolution by ourselves, i.e. our forces alone are not sufficient to attract and mobilize the large masses necessary to win, and since, no matter how long one waits, the masses cannot become anarchist before the revolution has started, and we will necessarily remain a relatively small minority until we can try out our ideas in revolutionary practice, by denying our cooperation to others and by postponing the action until we are strong enough to act by ourselves, we would practically end up encouraging sluggishness, despite the high-sounding words and the radical intentions, and refusing to get started, with the excuse of jumping to the end with one big leap.

I know very well — if I had not known for a long time I would have learnt recently — that we anarchists are alone in wishing the revolution for good and as soon as possible, except some individuals and groups that champ at the bit of the authoritarian parties’ discipline, but remain in those parties in the hope that their leaders will resolve someday upon ordering general action. However, I also know that the circumstances are often stronger than the individual’s will, and one day or another our cousins from all different sides will have to resolve upon venturing upon the final struggle, if they do not want to ignominiously die as parties and make a present to the monarchy of all their ideas, their traditions, their best sentiments. Today they could be induced to that by the necessity of defending their freedom, their goods, their life.

Therefore we should always be prepared to support those who are prepared to act, even if it carries with it the risk of later finding ourselves alone and betrayed.

But in giving others our support, that is, in always trying to use the forces at the disposal of others, and taking advantage of every opportunity for action, we must always be ourselves and seek to be in a position to make our influence felt and count at least in direct proportion to our strength.

To this end it is necessary that we should be agreed among ourselves and seek to co-ordinate and organize our efforts as effectively as possible.

Let others keep misunderstanding and slandering our goals, for reasons we do not want to qualify. All comrades that seriously want to take action will judge what is better for them to do.

At this time, as at any time of depression and stagnation, we are afflicted by a recrudescence of hair-splitting tendencies; some people enjoy discussing whether we are a party or a movement, whether we have to associate into unions or federations, and hundreds of other similar trifles; perhaps we will hear again that “groups can have neither a secretary nor a cashier, but they have to entrust one comrade to deal with the group’s correspondence and another to keep the money”. Hair-splitters are capable of anything; but let practical men see to taking action, and let the hair-splitters in good faith, and those in bad faith above all, stew in their own juice.

Let anyone do whatever they like, associate with whoever they like, but let them act.

No person of good faith and common sense can deny that acting effectively requires agreeing, uniting, organizing.

Today the reaction tends to stifle any public movement, and obviously the movement tends to “go underground”, as the Russians used to say.

We are reverting to the necessity of a secret organization, which is fine.

However, a secret organization cannot be all and cannot include all.

We need to preserve and increase our contact with the masses, we need to look for new followers by propagandizing as much as possible, we need to keep in the movement all the individuals unfit for a secret organizations and those who would jeopardize it by being too well-known. One must not forget that the persons most useful to a secret organization are those whose beliefs are unknown to the adversaries, and who can work without being suspected.

Therefore, in my opinion, nothing that exists should be undone. Rather, it is a matter of adding something more; something with such characteristics as to respond to the current needs.

Let nobody wait for someone else’s initiative; let anyone take the initiatives they deem appropriate in their place, in their environment, and then try, with due precautions, to connect their own to others’ initiatives, to reach the general agreement that is necessary to valid action.

We are in a time of depression, it is true. However, history is moving fast nowadays: let us get ready for the events to come.

Errico Malatesta, Umanità Nova, n. 185, August 26, 1922

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Do Not Fear Anarchy – Available Soon

We Do Not Fear the Cover

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication on June 16, 2015 by AK Press of my latest book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement, AK press is selling it in advance at the introductory price of only $15.75 USD. That’s for my 275 page history of the origins of the international anarchist movement from the debates and struggles within the International Workingmen’s Association (IWMA), the so-called First International, which was founded at a congress of predominantly English and French workers in September 1864. Previously, I posted excerpts from the Introduction. Here, I provide some excerpts from the concluding chapter, “The End (of the International) and the Beginning (of the anarchist movement).” Order your copy now, before it goes back up to its regular list price of $21.00.

The International

The International

From the International to an international anarchist movement and beyond

By the turn of the century, anarchist ideas and movements were spreading across the globe, with significant anarchist movements in Spain, Italy, France, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, Mexico and Peru, smaller but noteworthy movements in England, the United States, Russia, Germany, Sweden, Holland and Belgium, and emerging anarchist movements in Japan and China. Even the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm had to concede that before the 1917 Russian Revolution, “the bulk of the revolutionary left was anarcho-syndicalist, or at least much closer to the ideas and the mood of anarcho-syndicalism than to that of classical marxism.”

The anarchists within the International played an important role in establishing anarchism as a worldwide movement. It was the anarchists in the International who debated and developed the leading ideas of modern anarchism. The issues they raised continue to reverberate to this very day.

One of the key points made by the anarchists in the International was the need for revolutionary organizations to mirror the society which they hoped to achieve. In order for any revolution to succeed in liberating people and to avoid one ruling class simply replacing another, the organizational structures used to transform society must be voluntary, non-hierarchical, non-coercive and self-empowering. Hence the anarchist insistence that means be consistent with ends, and that everyone should have an equal voice. Instead of party or governmental type organizations with bureaucratic hierarchies and “representatives” who at best represent the interests of a few, the anarchists insisted on individual autonomy, voluntary association and the use, only when necessary, of recallable delegates subject to imperative mandates with no independent policy making powers of their own.

Tensions and disagreements arose among the anarchist themselves within the International regarding exactly which types of organization, if any, were conducive to achieving an anarchist society (or “anarchy,” in a positive sense). Bakunin, and since his time, the Platformists, have argued in favour of “dual organization,” with dedicated groups of anarchists sharing a common platform or program forming their own organizations which then work within broader based organizations or movements, such as the International itself, to steer those movements and organizations in an anarchist direction. Others, particularly the anti-organizationalists, objected that such organizations created an elite group of revolutionaries, or vanguard, that would act as the de facto leadership of these broader based movements and organizations, assuming control of them instead of fostering the self-empowerment of the people.

A middle course was sketched out by Malatesta, who was critical of the Platformists but rejected the extreme position of the anti-organizationalists. Malatesta also developed a perceptive critique of the International itself, and the anarchists’ role within it. The rapid ideological evolution among the various delegates to the International’s congresses, Malatesta later wrote, “quickly turning mutualist, collectivist, communist, revolutionary, and anarchist,” was not “reflective of any actual and simultaneous evolution in the vast majority of members” of the International, which was originally formed as an international association of workers for the purpose of providing “a broader base for the economic struggle against capitalism,” not as a revolutionary organization.

IWMA membership card

IWMA membership card

All of the various factions within the International, whether Proudhonist, Marxist, Blanquist or anarchist, “tried to force events rather than relying upon the force of events.” The International could not be “simultaneously a society for economic resistance, a workshop of ideas, and a revolutionary association.” While Malatesta clearly saw a role for specific anarchist organizations, he felt that the workers’ own organizations should be independent of any particular political group, including anarchist ones. It was up to the workers to find their own path, with anarchists fighting alongside them instead of dragging them along behind them. The adoption of an anarchist approach should “happen freely and gradually, as consciences expand and understanding spreads,” rather than the anarchists striding ahead alone under “the illusion that the masses understood and [were] following them,” or, worse, trying to foist their views on others.

Malatesta also pointed out the limitations of workers’ congresses and majority rule. In practical terms, “congresses are attended by whoever wishes and can, whoever has enough money and who has not been prevented by police measures.” Consequently, they are not even truly representative bodies. The only congresses compatible with anarchist values are those which do not attempt “to lay down the law;” any decisions emanating from them must not be “obligatory rules but suggestions, recommendations, proposals to be submitted to all involved,” and which “do not become binding and enforceable except on those who accept them, and [only] for as long as they accept them.”

When decisions are made by a majority vote of delegates to a congress, at best the decisions are made “by the majority of a majority, and these could easily, especially when the opposing opinions are more than two, represent only a minority.” Although “it is often necessary for the minority to come to accept the opinion of the majority” because “there is an obvious need or usefulness in doing something and to do it requires the agreement of all,” such “adaptation on the one hand by one group must on the other be reciprocal, voluntary and must stem from an awareness of need and of goodwill to prevent the running of social affairs from being paralyzed by obstinacy” rather than being “imposed as a principle and statutory norm.”

As for the use of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, as the experience of the Hague Congress demonstrated, this can lead to abuses. Delegates can act contrary to their mandates, supporting measures that the group they represent rejects. After such measures are passed at the congress, the group must then accept them against their wishes, or repudiate them at the risk of being expelled from the organization for going against the so-called will of the “majority.” Delegates who remain true to their mandates cannot vote on issues for which they have no mandate, giving free rein to delegates of opposing views and those who do not wish to conform to the mandates which they have been given.

With respect to specifically anarchist organizations, Malatesta was of the view that anarchists would be able to exert more influence over the course of events by associating together, whether for the purposes of propaganda, agitation or revolutionary action. He also argued that the rejection of public organization to avoid police prosecution actually made it easier for the authorities to suppress the anarchist movement by isolating anarchists and cutting them off from broader public support. Yet he also recognized that people have differing views, such that the creation of a unified anarchist movement, as envisaged by the Platformists, was a chimera. Instead of trying to achieve ideological uniformity, Malatesta suggested that anarchists of different tendencies simply organize their own groups, which was consistent with the general anarchist view in favour of voluntary association.

The Workers Themselves

The Workers Themselves

But what should the relationship be between anarchist groups and broader based social movements? Recalling the International slogan that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves, Malatesta reminded his fellow anarchists that they were “not out to emancipate the people; we want to see the people emancipate themselves.” What anarchists therefore needed to do was to foster “all manner of popular organizations” in order to accustom people to act for themselves, without relying on people in positions of authority to act for them.

Within the anti-authoritarian International there had been differing views regarding whether the anarchists should strive to create mass based organizations that would become powerful enough to sweep away the existing social system and whether these should be exclusively working class organizations. Some anarchists focused on the idea of the revolutionary commune, and others advocated interlocking federations of producer, consumer and communal or geographical groups. Still others came to adopt Malatesta’s view that what anarchists should be doing is working with people in their own organizations, such as trade unions, encouraging them to take direct action and to work towards the social revolution.

The two most prominent anarchist currents that emerged from the anti-authoritarian International were anarcho-syndicalism and anarchist communism, with the anarcho-syndicalists advocating the transformation of society by means of revolutionary trade unions that would provide the basis for a post-revolutionary society, and the anarchist communists advocating interlocking networks of ever changing voluntary associations to meet people’s multifarious needs and wants. For the most part, the disagreements between the anarcho-syndicalists and the anarchist communists were not over libertarian communism, as most of the anarcho-syndicalist organizations eventually adopted programs in favour of communism as opposed to collectivism. The disagreement was over how to achieve anarchist communism and what an anarchist communist society would look like.

As Malatesta pointed out, the problem with mass based trade union organizations is that many of their members were not anarchists, nor even revolutionaries. To maintain or increase their membership, the unions had to represent the interests of all of their members and achieve immediate improvements in working conditions. While a useful means for demonstrating the value of solidarity and sometimes increasing class consciousness, the unions either tended toward conservatism, as in England, or, like the International, had a leadership far more radical than most of its members.

Kropotkin’s views were similar to Malatesta’s. Although he believed that the “syndicate is absolutely necessary,” being “the only form of workers’ association which allows the direct struggle against capital to be carried on without a plunge into parliamentarianism,” he recognized, as did Malatesta, that the syndicate “does not achieve this goal automatically, since in Germany, in France and in England, we have the example of syndicates linked to the parliamentary struggle, while in Germany the Catholic syndicates are very powerful, and so on.” Kropotkin believed, with Bakunin, that it was necessary for anarchists to work within the unions in order to spur the workers on to revolution.

While Malatesta advocated working within unions, he advised anarchists against assuming any positions of authority within them. Anarchists needed to preserve their independence in order to keep the workers on a revolutionary path, avoiding the inevitable compromises that all but the most dictatorial of leaders must make when representing a broad based constituency with conflicting views and interests, and when having to work within the existing economic and political systems.

Malatesta quote 2

Other anarchist communists preferred to work within small affinity groups, but these different forms of organization were not mutually exclusive. In Spain, for example, the most dedicated anarchists maintained close knit affinity groups while at the same time working within the broader based anarchist workers’ federations. 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.

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. 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.” 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, June 2015

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The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

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

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malatesta quote 2

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

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

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

Robert Graham

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