Revolution in Rojava: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

KURDISH-FUNERAL-KOBANE-FIGHTER

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

tev-dem1

Revolutionary contradictions in Rojava

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rojava women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rojava people

What can we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Flood, April 2015

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Anarchist Prospects in Greece with Syriza in Power

Micropolis - Free Social Space in Greece

Micropolis – Free Social Space in Greece

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

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Alpha-Kappa Greek Anti-Authoritarian Network

Syriza in Power and the Anarchist Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greek Townhall

Greek Townhall

 

Janet Biehl: Further Reflections on the Revolution in Rojava

YPJ fighters

YPJ fighters

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

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Poor in Means But Rich in Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

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

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

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

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

Rojavan women

Rojavan women

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

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

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

rojava commune

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

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

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

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

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

a female Asayis

a female Asayis

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

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

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

Flour mill in Tirbesiye

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

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

A sewing co-op in Rojava

A sewing co-op in Rojava

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Biehl, December 2014

rojava_bild1

European Anarchism Before 1848

Prelude to Revolution

Prelude to Revolution

This is the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterward to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Here, I discuss some of the revolutionary ideas that were emerging in Europe prior to the European revolutions of 1848-1849.

france-revolution-of-1848-granger

Revolutionary Ideas in Europe

In the 1840s there was an explosion of radical ideas and movements in Europe, culminating in a wave of revolutions that swept the continent in 1848-49. In Germany, radical intellectuals inspired by and reacting against the philosophy of Hegel, sometimes referred to as the “Young” or “Left Hegelians,” began developing a “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” as Marx put it in 1843. The previous year, Bakunin had published his essay, “The Reaction in Germany,” in which he described the revolutionary program as “the negation of the existing conditions of the State” and “ the destruction of whatever order prevails at the time,” concluding with the now notorious phrase, the “passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” (Volume One, Selection 10). Max Stirner’s masterpiece of nihilistic egoism, The Ego and Its Own, came out in 1844 (Volume One, Selection 11). Arnold Ruge, one of the most prominent of the “Young Hegelians,” called for “the abolition of all government” in favour of “an ordered anarchy… the free community… of men who make their own decisions and who are in all respects equal comrades” (Nettlau: 53-59).

Three aspects of the Young Hegelian critique had a lasting impact on Bakunin, and through him on the development of anarchist ideas. The first was the Young Hegelian critique of religion. The second was the development of a materialist worldview, from which all “divine phantoms” were banished. The third, which followed from the first two, was atheism. Bakunin and later anarchists were to denounce the alliance of Church and State, particularly the role of religion in pacifying the masses and in rationalizing their domination and exploitation, advocating a materialist atheism that emphasizes human agency because there are no divine or supernatural forces to protect or deliver the people from their earthly misery. The people can only liberate themselves through their own direct action.

stiriner

Max Stirner

Max Stirner (1806-1856) took the Young Hegelian critique of “divine phantoms” to its furthest extreme, attacking all ideal conceptions, whether of God, humanity, or good and evil, as “spooks” or “wheels in the head” which dominate the very consciousness of the unique individual, preventing him or her from acting freely.

In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner argued that through upbringing, education and indoctrination, people internalize abstract social norms and values, putting the individual “in the position of a country governed by secret police. The spy and eavesdropper, ‘conscience,’ watch over every motion of the mind,” with “all thought and action” becoming “a matter of conscience, i.e. police business.” Anticipating radical Freudians like the anarchist psychoanalyst, Otto Gross (Volume One, Selection 78), Stirner observed that everyone “carries his gendarme within his breast.”

Stirner advocated freedom “from the State, from religion, from conscience,” and from any other power or end to which the individual can be subjected. He rejected any concept of justice or rights, arguing that the unique individual is free to take whatever is in his or her power. Whenever the egoist’s “advantage runs against the State’s,” he “can satisfy himself only by crime.” After Stirner’s writings were rediscovered in the late 1890s, this aspect of his critique was developed by individualist anarchists, such as Albert Joseph (“Libertad”), into the doctrine of “illegalism,” which was used by the Bonnot Gang as an ideological cloak for their bank robberies in the early 1900s in France (Perry, 1987).

Stirner denounced socialism for seeking to replace the individual capitalist with a collective owner, “society,” to which the individual will be equally subject, but nevertheless argued that the workers need only stop labouring for the benefit of their employers and “regard the product of their labour” as their own in order to bring down the State, the power of which rests on their slavery.

Another aspect of Stirner’s thought that was to have some influence on later anarchists is his distinction between insurrection and revolution. Revolutions seek to rearrange society into a new order. Insurrection or rebellion, by contrast, is “a rising of individuals… without regard to the arrangements that spring from it” (Volume One, Selection 11). In light of the defeats of the anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions, Herbert Read (1893-1968) sought to revive Stirner’s distinction, arguing that anarchists must avoid creating “the kind of machinery which, at the successful end of a revolution, would merely be taken over by the leaders of the revolution, who then assume the functions of government” (Volume Two, Selection 1). During the 1960s, many of the younger anarchists endorsed the notion of “spontaneous insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 51). More recently, Hakim Bey has argued in favour of the creation of “temporary autonomous zones,” which can be seen as “an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it” (Volume Three, Selection 11).

Anarchy is Self-Management

Anarchy is Self-Management

Proudhon: Machinery and Worker Self-Management

In one passage in The Ego and Its Own, Stirner described individuals as mere cogs in the “State machine.” In Proudhon’s 1846 publication, The System of Economic Contradictions, he argued that the first and “most powerful of machines is the workshop” The workshop degrades “the worker by giving him a master.” The “concentration of forces in the workshop” and the introduction of machinery “engender at the same time overproduction and destitution,” rendering more and more workers redundant, such that in a capitalist economy it is continually necessary to “create new machines, open other markets, and consequently multiply services and displace other” workers. Industry and wealth, population and misery, “advance, so to speak, in procession, one always dragging the other after it” (Volume One, Selection 9).

This focus on and opposition to relationships of subordination in both the economic and political spheres sharply distinguished Proudhon and the anarchists from many of their socialist contemporaries. In his sarcastic attempt to demolish Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Marx dismissed Proudhon’s critique of factory organization and machinery as a reactionary demand for a return to a pre-industrial utopia of skilled craft production. In the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), co-written with Friedrich Engels, Marx called for the centralization of “all instruments of production in the hands of the State… to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” This would require the establishment of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”

Proudhon’s solution to this problem was neither to advocate a return to a pre-industrial craft economy nor the creation of industrial armies, “for it is with a machine as with a piece of artillery: the captain excepted, those whom it occupies are servants, slaves” (Volume One, Selection 9). While Proudhon argued that free credit should be made available so that everyone would have the opportunity to engage in whatever productive activity they chose, he recognized from the outset the advantages of combining one’s labour with the labour of others, creating a “collective force” that in existing society was being exploited by the capitalists who reaped the benefit of the resulting increase in productive power. “Two hundred grenadiers stood the obelisk of Luxor upon its base in a few hours,” Proudhon wrote in What Is Property, “do you suppose that one man could have accomplished the same task in two hundred days?” (Volume One, Selection 8).

Proudhon therefore advocated workers’ control or worker self-management of industry, later referred to in France as “autogestion,” an idea that became a major tenet of subsequent anarchist movements (Guérin, Volume Two, Selection 49). In Proudhon’s proposals, all positions in each enterprise would be elected by the workers themselves, who would approve all by-laws, each worker would have the right to fill any position, “unpleasant and disagreeable tasks” would be shared, and each worker would be given a “variety of work and knowledge” so as to avoid a stultifying division of labour. Everyone would “participate in the gains and in the losses” of the enterprise “in proportion to his services,” with pay being “proportional to the nature of the position, the importance of the talents, and the extent of responsibility” (Volume One, Selection 12).

Robert Graham

Additional References

Nettlau, Max. A Short History of Anarchism. London: Freedom Press, 1996.

Perry, Richard. The Bonnot Gang. London: Rebel Press, 1987.

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ZACF: The Class Struggle for Anarchism in Africa

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Last year, one of my most popular posts was an interview with Sam Mbah, co-author with I.E. Igariwey of African Anarchism (1997), regarding the situation in Nigeria and the prospects for anarchism in Africa today. I included excerpts from African Anarchism in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In southern Africa, the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) has recently published a statement of principles regarding the need to create anarchist specific class struggle organizations in order to create an anarchist society based on self-management and libertarian communism

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What does the ZACF stand for?

Zabalaza means struggle, the continual struggle of the working class to access real freedom. We mean freedom from the repression of the state, and oppression by multi-national as well as local companies. Too long has a small elite been in control. Workers and their communities have risen up many times in the past but have always been crushed by the police forces of the state. In the past the working class – including the poor and unemployed – has protested but often lost: social movements have burnt out and trade union leaders have made bad deals with the bosses.

We advocate workers’ self-management over the mines, factories – and all other workplaces. Also, self-management in our communities to make our own decisions on the resources we need to run our lives, to have access to water, electricity, jobs, housing and to receive decent education.

We cannot achieve this under the system of the state and political parties, because these only serve the small ruling class elite. This ruling class enjoys the lion’s share of wealth and power, and uses the resources of society to benefit itself, first. So, there is not enough public transport, but there are factories making BMWs for the elite few; there is not enough food for the people, but rich people spending millions of Rands on parties, billions are spent on arms deals while the poor die in run-down government hospitals.

Anarchist ideas, made real through political education and mass organizing, will confirm the power within the working class to organize and smash the state and company system. Anarchist ideas are not as widespread within southern Africa as in other parts of the world.

To build for anarchism, we all need to be in agreement about our strategic plan and our political ideas. So, we need to reflect on the past mistakes and successes in order to regroup. Mass movements will be stronger if we are all clear on one vision. Once we are all clear on the same position we can proceed to the revolution to overturn the state, and live in a true communist society not run by political or “worker” parties, or vanguards.

This new (anarchist) society will be self-controlled. It will be based on working class power from below, grassroots democracy, production for need not profit or elite power, and a democratic militia (army) under the control of the working class.

We want a revolutionary front of the oppressed classes. We want to organise in the southern part of Africa from South Africa to Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi. In all these regions the vast majority of the working class is black. Most of these countries fought for liberation from imperialist powers and local colonialism, but today we, the working class, are still oppressed in our work environment, and still have to continually struggle for equal access to land, water and electricity. This can only end by revolution from below. It cannot change through elections, which betray the people, or politicians, who cheat the people, or capitalists, who exploit the people.

Anarchist specific organizations in Southern Africa and the rest of the world need to keep comrades in check to not be hijacked by political parties. Because ultimately the state is the enemy, it will not solve the class struggle – it serves the ruling class, not the people. So, we must organize outside of elections, outside of the system, from below, in mass organizations that are democratic and that have a clear political (anarchist) line.

Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front

Related Link: http://zabalaza.net

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Tunisian Anarchists Against World Capitalism

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In response to the World Social Forum in Tunisia, some Tunisian anarchists have issued this anti-capitalist manifesto. Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideascontains similar selections regarding anti-capitalist anarchist movements in Egypt, Greece, Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America. Volume Three is available through AK Press.

Revolutionaries of the world:

On the occasion of the World Social Forum which will be held in Tunisia during March 2013, we believe that the liberal reformist approach opted for by the organizing bureaucracy of the Forum will in no way lead to a revolutionary project for the people of the world. Even though the event is presented as an opportunity for the revolutionaries coming from all corners of the globe to meet, we deem that the ultimate objective, namely the collapse of the capitalist system, will not be taken into consideration.

This Forum will take place in a highly critical time in the history of the world; social movements and uprisings are sweeping capitalism off its feet. Rage against the system does not recognize frontiers and geographical taxonomy of East and West. The so-called democratic states are as threatened by these risings as the worst dictatorships; the question to be examined is what are the driving forces of these revolts from Spain to Egypt and from Greece to Tunisia which are jeopardizing the capitalist states?

The economic crisis is not a conclusion created by “experts” and professional critics of the field; even politicians in power and their oppositions admit that they are incapable of putting an end to the outrageous rates of unemployment, impoverishment, undernourishment, diseases and pollution. The repetitive discourses delivered through mass-media are only encouraging people to adjust to the situation and await resolutions that will never come. This proves that the system has resorted to the time-old strategies of encroachment and propaganda in order to survive one of its many major crises throughout history. Wherever and whenever implemented, these strategies only brought about ravages and precariousness.

Despite the recurrent scenario of democratic succession to power and elections as a means of power distribution between “left” and “right,” “liberals” and “conservatives,” and despite the huge budgets spent to organize media campaigns to promote the illusion of “democratic transition” and “political liberties” or “freedom of expression,” only disillusionment is installed.

The World Social Forum, which is held and financed by capitalists and their affiliates, is nothing but an attempt to convince the victims of the capitalist system that the inherent reasons behind the economic crisis are so-called “Neo-Liberalism,” “extreme globalization,” “financial speculation” and worsening debt, which they suggest calls for the one and only alternative and that is the reformation of a system which is the actual source of these ailments.

Libertarians of the world:

The wretched of the earth are rejecting their everyday reality through uprising and revolting; now they know that union and determination are the keys to their own liberation and to the liberation of future generations from the grip of capitalism.

As the wretched and revolutionaries of the world we have to continue the insurrection in order to liberate our existence from the deadly claws of capitalism. There is absolutely nothing more powerful than our union and determination to fight till the last gasp against the oppressive system.

We boycott and oppose this Forum not only because we refuse tohave anything to do with the bureaucratic syndicalist associations organizing the event, and because the mere participation in the Forum is equivalent to being part of the project of promoting for and installing colonialist collaboration and social submission which are cherished by the bourgeoisie, its media and political mediocrity, but also because we primarily boycott every reform movement whether it comes from the right or the left.

We are the allies of social revolution.

As the crisis is intensifying and is more keenly felt by the masses we can see disobedience movements being born all over the world along with incessantly growing uprisings. These different crises have resulted in revolutionary movements in different countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain as well as social uprisings in Greece, Spain, Portugual, and even in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Libertarians of the world:

This call is ours. It is that of the marginalized, the unemployed graduates and non-graduates, the farmers without lands, women without voices, the exploited miners, all those that the bureaucrats of the WSF pretend to represent after excluding them from the organizations of debates. Our call is that of the disobedient, revolutionaries and  other social movements opposed to the capitalist system and authoritarian governments.

Politicians, media and ideologies:

Sellers of illusion and fear disguised under their reformist customs who are pretending to be against the capitalist system are only a part of this very system. We only have to examine the components of this Forum, its bureaucratic organization and statements to realize that it does not attack the essence of capitalism and that it is nothing but another attempt to diminish the rage of the billions of individuals revolting against hunger, impoverishment and precariousness chanting but one unique slogan:

“The people want the fall of the regime”

This was the echo of the cry which resonated from Tahrir Square to Wall Street, from Athens to Tunis and from Barcelona to Bahrain. This cry carried one simple slogan that frightens the retrograde forces which call for an accurate articulation of the exact words of the slogan:

“The people want the fall of capitalism”

Capitalism is the system; a particular president, a political party, or a king, are no more than the temporary guardians of the system and not the system. They are the docile executioners of its mechanisms regardless of the form of the government it adopts.

Libertarians of the world:

Mass-media owned by world capitalism spend billions to circulate the illusion of democratic transitions. It distorts any experience or attempt of self-organization by workers to manage their own resources because it threatens the capitalists’ best interests.

In order for us to emancipate ourselves today we need to form revolutionary fronts, coordinate our actions and effectively fight against the world capitalist regime. We want to trigger real transformation in our societies which must be based on self-management of resources.

We call upon all the revolutionary forces of the world, movements and organizations of resistance to capitalism to unite our work internationally against the pseudo-democratic states or dictatorships whether they are secular or religious, liberal or conservative.

Capitalism is the crisis; the fall of the system is the fall of capitalism.

Tunisian Anarchist Flag

Tunisian Anarchist Flag

Kropotkin: After the Revolution

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In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included some excerpts from Kropotkin’s Words of a Rebel, in which he wrote that “To overthrow a government — that is everything for a bourgeois revolutionary. For us, it is only the beginning of the Social Revolution.” Here, I reproduce excerpts from an article he wrote for Freedom, the English anarchist paper which he helped found, on the necessity of economic communism after the overthrow of the government, emphasizing the positive measures that must be taken by the people themselves in order to make the revolutionary struggle worthwhile. What is particularly interesting is Kropotkin’s discussion regarding how a libertarian, or anarchist, communist society would function. Rather than, for example, housing being allotted by a new “revolutionary” government, which would soon turn into an unwieldly bureaucracy, at best, or a bureaucratic dictatorship, as happened in Russia, at worst, Kropotkin insists that the people themselves must work out a way of providing for each other’s housing needs by means of free agreement.

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The Necessity of Communism

If all Socialists should agree… that the wants of all must be the first guiding consideration of any revolutionary movement which has a Socialist character — and we really cannot understand how this can be denied, or even underrated — then they would perceive that the next revolution, if it is guided by Socialist principle, must necessarily drive them to Communism, and Communism drive them to Anarchy.

Of course, if we admit that the next revolution will have accomplished its mission as soon as it succeeds in overthrowing the present rulers and proclaims some great industrial undertakings, like railways and mines, the property of a State democratized a bit — everything beyond that remaining as it is — then, of course, there is no use in speaking about Social Revolution at all. It is no use to describe with so pompous a word the visions of Herr Bismarck, who also dreams of taking all great branches of industry under the management of the State democratized  by Imperial ism. We only remark that such a result would be utterly shabby in comparison with the great movement of ideas stirred up by Socialism; and that it stands in very strange contradiction with the hopes that Socialists are awakening precisely among the most miserable classes of labourers.

But, if those who describe themselves as revolutionists and really are revolutionists, at least with regard to their proceedings, if not always in ideas which inspire them, if they really mean a thorough modification of the present state of property, they cannot avoid perceiving that the day they begin any serious economical change in the present conditions of property, they immediately will have to face the problem of providing food for those who so long have suffered from want of it, of giving shelter to those who have none worthy the name of a dwelling, and of providing clothes for those who are now ragged and barefoot.

Not in the shape of charities, whosoever might distribute them; as charities distributed by a municipal or local board brought to power by the revolution would remain as much an insult to those to whom they were distributed as the charities of the millionaire at the present day; but as something which is due by society to everybody; and, first of all, precisely to those who have patiently waited for the ‘justice to all’ regularly promised by revolutionists and reformers, and always forgotten as soon as the said revolutionists and reformers are on the top of the political ladder. We do not care about ‘Coronation gifts’, be they distributed by a King, or by a shopkeeper acclaimed President of a Republic, or by a brother-workman nominated Municipal Councillor. We merely ask for what is due to everybody, everybody having contributed to the extent of his capacities to the creation of the riches which surround us.

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To leave nobody without food, shelter and clothing, is the first and imperative duty of each popular movement inspired by Socialist ideas; and we wonder why our Socialist friends, so outspoken in their political programs, are so discreet exactly on this subject — the object, the first aim, in our opinion, of any movement worthy to be called Socialist. Is it a simple omission, or something so obvious that it is needless to waste words upon it?

But, if it is really so, then, how is it possible to avoid Communism entering into our life in the very first days of the revolution?

We have already said… why the revolution in our present conditions of property can only issue from widely- developed, independent local action. The miners of a more advanced mining district, the inhabitants of a more advanced city, cannot wait until all Great Britain is converted to their ideas by pamphlets, manifestoes, and speeches; they will go ahead, saying to themselves that the best means to convert everybody is by example.

And now, imagine a city in revolt where the majority follows the Socialists. What must the Socialists propose if they really wish to be with the masses, and march together with them for the conquest of the future? What must they propose if they mean to be in accordance with justice and with their own principles? The words Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity are surely grand and glorious words. We may inscribe them on each banner, and let them float over each house. We may even inscribe them, as our Paris neighbours do after each revolution, on each public building, even on prisons. But, what besides the words? Another word? The nationalization of land, of mines, of capital, which may be full of meaning, but may remain as meaningless as the great words of Fraternity, of Equality, of Liberty, when they are painted on prison walls?

As to us, Communist-Anarchists, the question we shall put to ourselves will not be, What shall we inscribe on our banners? It will be, What shall the workman eat during the next twenty-four hours? Is he able, and must he continue to pay the rent to the landlord and house-owner? Where will those who live in dens, or even have not a den to live in, spend the next night?

These plain, brutal questions will be asked in each workman’s household; they will be asked in each of the slums so particularly described a few years ago by the newspapers for the amusement of the occupiers of ducal and princely palaces; they will be asked, however limited the knowledge of the workman and the slum-inhabitant of Marx’s or Proudhon’s Political Economy. And they must be asked — and answered — by each earnest Socialist, unless his presumptuous learnedness considers a question too mean which has not been treated in Marx’s Capital, or in Proudhon’s Economical Contradictions.

Once asked, there is, however, no other answer to the question than this: There are so many houses in the city. Some of them are overcrowded, some others nearly empty; some of them being dens which even a beast would find too dirty, too wet, and too disgusting to stay in unless compelled to do so; and some others embellished with all the refinements of modern luxury.

It might remain so as long as we lived under the monopoly of private property. It could remain so as long as humanity was considered as consisting of two classes: the one created for the dens, and the other for the palaces. It could remain so as long as there was a State ruled by land, house, and capital owners, who exacted rack rents for their own benefit, and called in police and emergency men to evict the rebels who refused to enrich them. But it cannot remain so any longer.

Tenants Take Over

Tenants Take Over

Apart from a few cottages purchased by workmen families, at the price of all possible privations, none of these houses can be honestly considered as honestly acquired by their present owners. Humanity has built them; they belong to humanity, or at least to that part of humanity which is gathered on the spot. As soon as we proclaim that property — whatever its shape — is an accumulation of wealth due to the spoliation of the masses by the few — and who amongst Socialists does not affirm and reaffirm that principle? — we can no longer consider property in houses as a sacred right. They belong to all, and the very first thing we have to do is to consider what use can be made of them in order to provide everybody with a decent home.

The only rule to guide us must be the wants of each family, each of them being equally entitled to enjoy the produce of the labour of generations past and present. We cannot ask what each family will be able to pay for a house; it is not their fault if thousands and thousands, brought to misery by our former conditions, can afford to pay nothing, and even those who can produce will be reduced to idleness by the economic changes rendered necessary by the faults of our forefathers. It is not his fault if the man there who has half a dozen children has none of the accomplishments which characterize the owner of the palace and his daughters. He and his wife have worked all their life long; can the owner of the palace say as much of himself and his wife? And his rights to a decent dwelling are as good as that of the palace-owner.

And the Socialist who is not a mere quack must accept this standpoint: he must recognize that to take possession of the houses in the name of the city in revolt, and provide every inhabitant with a decent dwelling, is the very first duty of the Socialist who is in earnest, whose criticisms of the capitalist system have not been empty declamation.

Communism as to the dwelling must thus necessarily impose itself from the very first days of any serious Socialist movement.

But, who can come to an allotment of this very first necessity of life if the inhabitants themselves cannot do it? Can it be a local board? Can it be any other elected body which will order: Mr. A goes to house No. 10, and Mr. B to house No. 15? Obviously not! The settlement, any settlement which would last for some time, can only result from the initiative of all interested in the settlement, from the good-will of all in conjunction. And a first step towards Anarchy — towards the settlement of a grave social question without the intervention of Government — will be taken.

It will take some time to come to a satisfactory settlement of the question of dwellings. The Russian Mir spends sometimes three or four days before a hundred householders come to a unanimous agreement as to the repartition of the allotments of soil in accordance with the working powers of each family (there is no government to enforce a solution which is not unanimous), but they come nevertheless.

The settlement must be arrived at, for the very simple reason that the present inhabitants of the dens and slums will not recognize that they must forever remain in their slums and dens, and leave the palaces to the rulers of the day. And an approach to Communism will thus be enforced — even on the most individualistic collectivist.

Freedom, September 1887

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Cyrille Gallion: Towards a New Anarcho-Syndicalism (2006)

The Anarcho-Syndicalist Revolution

Cyrille Gallion is a member of the French anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the Confederation Nationale du Travail (CNT-F). In the following excerpts, translated by Paul Sharkey, Gallion argues that contemporary anarcho-syndicalists must focus on popular self-organization and put their trust in direct or participatory democracy, a common theme in many of the selections I have included in Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. I will be discussing these issues, together with Dimitri Rousopoulos and Davide Turcato, on November 20, 2012 at the downtown Central Public Library branch in Vancouver, at the book launch for Volume Three.

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Direct Democracy is Revolutionary

One does not sit around and wait for the revolution to arrive; one builds towards it!

In its current form (representative democracy), or in some other guise, capitalism  may collapse in a few years or linger for centuries. What comes next may be a system that humanity has already sampled or indeed something quite new. History has no meaning, no harm to those who prattle otherwise. Nothing is written, nothing is inevitable.

There have been many systems throughout history (feudalism, for one) that have teetered for one or two centuries before entrenching for a lasting period (a millennium).

Signing up for the duration without knowing what the future holds leads us to be voluntarists. So it is not a matter of preparing the “workers’ party” while we wait for capitalism to collapse, but rather of laying the groundwork for a different society within and without capitalism, regardless of whether the capitalist mode of production should endure or crumble. Should it endure, we have to rebuild from below the society that allowed it to gain a foothold. Should it crumble, it would be better if we were to lay the groundwork for a new society in advance. For spontaneity in the absence of a grassroots political culture and organization might bring with it the risk of our following an authoritarian route…

The righteous demand for justice now should go hand in hand with the construction of an enduring, underlying movement. Here again we must move beyond the tensions between revolutionary spontaneists for whom all things are achievable at once (spontaneists who forget that they have been or are such with decades of the workers’ movement behind them) and the Stalinist movements which reckon that we should all wait for our orders to arrive.

Representative “Democracy” is the Counter-Revolution

Supporters of a revolution, which is to say of a society freed of capitalism, are jaded at present. Especially those who were around for the past few decades. A time when, for many workers, the issue was not knowing whether a revolution needed making but when and how to go about making one…

Paradoxically, signing up for the long haul is the surest and fastest route. We have to take everything back to the start and ponder a body of actions and ideas that might build up to a genuine revolutionary movement. Besides the classic tools of trade unionism, there is a chance to build up a reservoir of thought that may crystallize a response to capitalism. We shouldn’t feel any sort of a complex when dealing with intellectuals, left or right. The federalist mode of operating magnifies our strength, for the networking of our ideas multiplies their strength. We reject the gulf between intellectuals and people, between party and trade union. We are all one and theory and practice are forever cross-fertilizing one another.

Anarcho-syndicalism should be profoundly popular and we must equip ourselves for this. Equipping ourselves means sparing a thought for the actual circulation of our publications, which seems obvious enough, but it applies also to searching for other ways of making propaganda.

Most of our propaganda originates with militants and is intelligible only to other militants. It is not enough for a tract to be distributed; it needs to be read as well. Our movement is still too focused upon the world of the militant and too heedful of what the militants from other organizations (or without organizations) are thinking, and not sufficiently alive to ways of genuinely communicating our ideas to the masses. The important point is to break out of the militant universe that has been arguing over the sex of angels ever since the siege of Constantinople.

True, this calls for effort of quite a different sort. Rather than disquisition about the finer points of the [anarchist] Synthesis and the Platform [of Libertarian Communists] for the consumption of anarchists, or about Trotsky’s part in Kronstadt for the benefit of Lutte Ouvrière members, or about the dangers posed by the National Front or indeed the treachery of the socialists, we must, as a matter of urgency, make ourselves intelligible to the majority of the population. The written word is extremely important and trade unionism must remain a schoolroom encouraging us all to read. But confining ourselves to the intellectual practice of the written word is elitist: acting as if everybody had ready access to the world of the written word equally so. The priority for the anarcho-syndicalist movement… is to target others for our ideas and actions by other means, starting with audio and video…

Among the classical formats of the revolutionary movement, there is this one: a small but ‘attuned’ number of people organize themselves into a group founded upon moral and ideological attitudes and then try to influence more broadly based movements or organizations. This is the outlook that spawned Stalinism and all its horrors. Moral beings end up sacrificing themselves or in countenancing everything in the name of efficacy. Efficacy: the word has been an excuse for all manner of criminality! True, efficacy is to be wished for, but one step at a time.

Alternatively, people organize on the basis of interests. Misconstrued short term interests lead to a corporatist trade unionism… But there is also such a thing as long-term self-interest.

We should not reject self-interest: it is a more peaceable course than the moralistic route. The moralistic route cannot be squared with libertarian thinking since it consists of seeking what is good for others, in spite of them.

This is how trade unionism should be, a congregation of individuals driven by their respective self-interest. We must have done with these notions of vanguards and active minorities who look upon themselves as the sole repositories of class consciousness. Anarcho-syndicalism, if we have to use big words, is the very opposite of this: it sees itself as a popular movement of regular people, not some clique of militants, not some “elite trade unionism”.

Anarcho-Syndicalism

On the other hand this is a trade unionism which is a vehicle for values that are part and parcel of it, values such as anti-clericalism, anti-militarism, feminism, these being the values of trade unionism rather than political values injected into trade unionism. Engagement with anti-militarism or ecology is a logical consequence of trade unionism.

The confusion arises from the fact that the political parties have made such activities their own and, above all, have sought to restrict the unions’ sphere of operations to straightforward wage claims. The political parties (whether they run for election or not) cannot countenance the existence of an organization that rejects the dividing line between individuals driven by a moral craving and those who band together on the basis of their interests. The fact remains that the best long term means of raising class consciousness, to use some grandiose terms, is actually for these two approaches, the moral and the interest-based, to be married.

The party political approach designed to cream off “the best elements” of the trade unions, or whatever movements and collectives, for the “nobler” organization is the most absurd, in that it belittles the political maturity (logos) of the “people”. A change of society is not achievable by violence from above and mind-sets cannot be altered by decree. An idea has to be widespread throughout society.

Awarding the party exclusive title to do the thinking renders the entire set-up precarious.  It is made up of normal people with their good points and shortcomings. One does not join a trade union on the basis of taking an exam on its thinking, but because it has something to offer us. Then again, a trade union is more than just a fight for wages; it is a culture, a collective school, embodying values which are held in esteem.

Democracy within the organization is a risk that has to be taken. An genuinely democratic organization has no taboos, no immutable rules. Certain revolutionaries (actually most of them), including the anti-authoritarians, libertarians and others among them, are democrats only up to a point. They aim to put “strait-jackets” on the organizations they build, failing to see that they are smuggling in a fundamental contradiction threatening the entire edifice right from the outset.

In a genuinely democratic trade union, every wage earner is free to join and partake in the life of his or her trade union, including tinkering with the means of the union and diverting it away from the initial goal the earliest members of the union set themselves.  Unless one takes this risk of democracy by, say, building immutable values into the union, then those values go unchampioned and are no longer pertinent but dead. Which is precisely what Simone Weil meant when she wrote that the trade unions were dead organizations!

The values that strike us as important, simply because they are imposed by the statutes of the trade union, require no further explanation and are in no danger of spreading. This is a paradox in which many revolutionary organizations (including – indeed, especially – the anarchist ones) are trapped.

Direct Action Against Capitalism

By contrast, in a free society there is no such imposition; these things are thrashed out. It is always an issue whether the values we champion ought to be defended in a democratic organization. Those values, which some would describe in a non-democratic context as ideology… are communist and anarchist values; in short, the values of the revolutionary movement. They have one meaning in the context of a democratic organization wherein they are up for argument and rebuttal, whereas they become ridiculous or dangerous if they are confined within a political party or trade union that lays down inflexible rules in order to defend them.

To conclude on this point, if some would rather stay inside a pure organization with specific rules, we ourselves would rather run the risk of having one day to leave the organization we are building. Freedom cannot be imposed, which is why a genuinely functioning democracy is rickety and risky, but it could hardly be otherwise.

Trade unionism in the proper sense is revolutionary… But it is the structure which is revolutionary, rather than its component members. Regular people are the ones who join trade unions and they are revolutionaries because of their self-organization, rather than being revolutionaries in the militant and personal sense of the term.

So let us roll up our sleeves and reflect upon the mistakes of the past, especially as they relate to revolutionary syndicalism, without thereby being prevented from experimenting, and let us leave it  to the union membership to deal with the logic of whatever needs they may encounter.

Cyrille Gallion

Jorge Silva: Libertarian Self-Management (1996)

Jorge Silva, an anarchist writing from Brazil, emphasizes in the following piece, translated by Paul Sharkey, the difference between genuine self-management and the “participatory” forms of management adopted by some capitalist enterprises to increase production while leaving actual control of the enterprise firmly in the hands of management (www.nodo50.org/insurgentes/textos/autonomia/05projeto-libertario.htm).

Libertarian Self-Management

If we are to understand Capitalism and the State and their bureaucratic institutions, it is not enough that they should be analysed as modes of production; we must also see them as specific, historical forms of the hijacking of society.

Clarity on this issue is vital for social movements, mainly for those that aim to keep the prospect of change alive at a time when the prevailing ideology would have us believe in a new historical determinism encapsulated in a theological dogma: that capitalism and the state will be around for all eternity.

Capitalism is an historical mode of production that manages to extend its logic into every social institution and its values into every single culture,  in a process of homogenization that is without precedent.

While it is true to say that it  did not invent the machinery of exploitation and domination, it is also true to say that by accentuating and setting social roles in stone, rendering them one-dimensional and impoverishing the life of the producer already prey to economic modes of exploitation, capitalism boasts all of the negativity of both exploitation and of political and cultural domination which translates as the growing alienation of human beings.

These days, contemporary forms of capitalist administration are characterized by their bureaucratic, remote control nature, whereby the workers and indeed the intellectuals and the experts in absurdity are losing control over the production and management of everything. Likewise, the so-called law-based state finishes up usurping all decision-making powers on its own behalf or on that of its bureaucracy and experts in representation, the citizenry being reduced to the status of mere spectators whose task it is to vote for these elites.

Which is not to say that the ruling elites do not need to call upon us to “participate”. Certain contemporary forms of management have at their core the virtues of participation, with workers cooperating and acting and being represented as “partners”. From the USA to Japan and Brazil, there are “experts” who make their living doing this. Doing away with social conflict, especially on the terrain of production, through corporativism or feudal paternalism is what capitalist modernity is all about. As reflected in the prison model already in place in some countries with self-governing prisons where the inmates stand guard over themselves!

The only thing is that self-management has nothing to do with this caricature. The values of autonomy, self-organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid were, historically, values at odds with capitalist values and in the socialist movement their chief manifestation came in the form of the self-managerial school of thought. The still relatively new notion of self-management addresses another notion that was central to libertarian socialism, namely, that all of us as citizens or workers can manage without bureaucracy and the state in the running of society. This was a central point for the social movement during socialist experiments, from the Paris Commune through the Soviet Revolution and the Spanish Revolution. But it was not just a stratagem designed to boost private profit through a more intelligent form of administration that looks no further than lining up the workers inanely on production lines, Henry Ford-style, if only because, over time, automation is  doing away with the need for human ‘machinery’.

The social division of Labour — and the rule of representative parties — requires that there be some semblance of participation across the board but mainly by the lower orders, so that two things can be achieved: boosted production and legitimacy and the elimination of apathy, this being a socially dangerous phenomenon. One has only to listen to what is happening on many industrial production lines, what with absenteeism, low productivity levels, stress and sabotage. In politics, we can imagine the consequences of political leaders being returned on the basis of a 20%, 10% or 5% turn-out at the ballot box. How could they claim any legitimacy for their speeches and policies?

By way of a counterpoint to the state and hierarchical, authoritarian modes of organization, social movements were developing a model of organization based upon egalitarian collective practices obtaining in relations of solidarity and willing cooperation — self-management, in short — a system made up of self-governing, cooperating groups from which hierarchy and domination have been banished.

True, such forms of voluntary, non-hierarchical organization require personal commitment, engagement and a consciousness at odds with hierarchical modes of organization that resort to coercion, blackmail and reward. For which reason it is harder and more time-consuming to create and develop cooperative forms of organization, if only because resistance to innovation, the impact of the prevailing values and routine tend to yoke us to forms of organization involving an onerous and ongoing quest for innovation and partnership. But is self-management — let alone systemic self-management — likely to be achievable over time?

The anarchists will optimistically answer in the affirmative, since exploitation and domination, with their concomitant wretchedness and alienation, provoke resistance and dreams that flesh out the craving for a different sort of society that mirrors different forms of organisation and inter-human relationships.

To be sure, the path to this alternative society is not as short or linear as some — the advocates of Marxism-Leninism — used to think, if only because history shows us the extent to which the phenomena of subordination and alienation have been internalized by every class and group in society, especially in our society, massified and captivated as it is by an ideology of consumerism and spectacle.

Competitive rivalry has deep cultural (and, some say, biological) roots and the upshot of these are the more violent forms of exploitation, death, war and alienation, but, as Peter Kropotkin showed in his book Mutual Aid [Volume 1, Selection 54], even in the animal kingdom one of the crucial factors in the evolution of species was cooperation within the species.

In philosophical and political terms, the point is for us to discover the lengths to which human societies can carry their process of historical apprenticeship and re-creation of forms of social organisation or whether the conservative force of inertia, blended with authoritarian power networks can lull to sleep the human creativity and restlessness that runs throughout history.

The freedom route, the route to moving past complete dependency upon nature or someone else — in short, the building of autonomy and the path for which social groups and individuals have been searching throughout history, requires that we put paid to the bonds of exploitation, domination and alienation and boost an authentic, deep-seated relationship between the individual and those around him and the sort of reciprocity that Buber used to talk about.

This is the issue that continues to confront social movements, unless they want to go for the sort of trinkets that the system always dispenses (once upon a time to trade unionism, and these days to the newer social movements), turning them in most cases into mere beneficiaries of the exploitation and domination that they used to condemn. This course is described as pragmatism, but can be better gauged in terms of the leadership, their premises and  shares portfolios.

A bureaucratic brand of trade unionism that reproduces differently named forms of organization and which is based upon the existence of a team of immovable leaders who specialize in representing the world of work, thereby fitting in with the managers of all of the institutions in capitalist society in arguing the case for the “necessity” of delegation and the “inevitability” of the bureaucratization of organizations.

Autonomous trade unionism — autonomous in terms of its dealings with the state and with capital — is voluntary organization on the basis of affinity and still represents one of the main potential tools for social change. Except that this approach to trade unionism is not confined to merely adopting a few vague theoretical principles but necessitates other forms of association that strive in the here and now for an egalitarian, autonomous and self-organizational model, a miniature of what our ambitions for society as a whole would be like.

A model of direct, inter-active participation (in which delegation is tailored to specific tasks with specific time limits, with delegates accountable at all times to the rank and file and liable to recall at any point) that rejects the bureaucratization and administrative sclerosis of the unions and social movements, making a contribution towards the cultural and social enrichment of the workers, conjuring up an alternative culture and resistance that underpin new social relations, is a prequisite for any re-creation of forms of social organization.

This was the path upon which revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism had embarked before they were tragically interrupted by converging negative forces at the beginning of the century: by Leninism, by Nazism and fascism and, in the Brazilian case, by Vargas’s authoritarianism in the 1930s.

With the overthrow of state capitalism in eastern Europe and with capitalism racked by a profound crisis,  it is high time that we venture again with open eyes and hope down what Martin Buber [Volume 2, Selection 16] called the ‘paths to utopia’ that lead on to systemic self-management.

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