Nestor Makhno: From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Russian peasants

After his return to Ukraine in March 1917, Nestor Makhno focused on creating a Peasants’ Union that would organize the local peasantry for the purpose of instituting a form of socialist self-management of the land by the peasants themselves. He debated those local anarchists who opposed taking a leadership role, concerned that they would be placing themselves in positions of authority above the people. He spoke against organizing support for revolutionary parties for the purpose of enabling them to push for the expropriation of the land by a Constituent Assembly, when the peasants could do this themselves without waiting for the political parties to do this for them. He also argued for the replacement of the local Public Committee, which represented the Provisional Government, by the Peasants’ Union. The following excerpts, from Volume One of Makhno’s memoir, The Russian Revolution in Ukraine, begin with Makhno attending a general meeting of the Public Committee.

From the Public Committee to the Peasants’ Union

Towards noon I arrived at the general meeting which had just started with the report of the chairman of the Public Committee, Ensign Prusinsky…

At the conclusion of his report, the chairman of the Public Committee asked me to address the Council in support of his views. This I refused to do and instead asked to speak on another matter.

In my speech I pointed out to the peasants the absurdity of allowing in revolutionary Gulyai-Pole such a Public Committee, headed by people who were strangers to the community and who were not accountable to the community for their actions. And I proposed that the assembly immediately delegate four people from each sotnia (Gulyai-Pole was divided into seven wards, called sotnias) to hold a special conference about this and other questions…

It was decided that delegates should be elected at separate meetings of the sotnias and a day was fixed for the meetings. Thus ended my first public appearance after getting out of prison…

After this I went to a meeting of our whole group.

Here we analyzed my report and Kalenichenko’s criticism of it. As a result, we decided to begin methodical propaganda work in the sotnias: among the peasants, and in the mills and workshops. This agitation work was to be based on two premises:

  1. So long as the peasants and workers found themselves in a disorganized state, they would not be able to constitute themselves as a regional social force of [an] anti-authoritarian character, capable of struggling against the “Public Committee”. Up to this point the peasants and workers, whether they liked it or not, had been obliged to adhere to the “Public Committee”, organized under the auspices of the Provisional Coalition Government. That is why it was important to re-elect this Committee in Gulyai-Pole.
  2. Sustained agitation must be carried out for the organization of a Peasants’ Union, which we would take part in and in which we would exercise the dominant influence. We would express our lack of confidence in the “Public Committee”, an organ of the central government, and urge the Peasants’ Union to take over this organ.

“This tactic,” I told the comrades, “I see leading to the repudiation of government rule with its concept of this type of Public Committee. Moreover, if we are successful in our efforts, we shall help the peasants and workers to realize a fundamental truth. Namely that once they take a conscious and serious approach to the question of revolution, then they themselves will become the true bearers of the concept of self-management. And they won’t need the guidance of political parties with their servant — the State.

The time is very favourable for us, anarchists, to strive for a practical solution to a whole range of problems of the present and the future, even if there are great difficulties and the possibility of frequent mistakes. These problems are connected in one way or another with our ideal and by struggling for our demands we shall become the true bearers of the free society. We can’t let this opportunity pass by. That would be an unforgivable error for our group, for we would become separated from the labouring masses.

At all costs we must beware of losing touch with the workers. This is equivalent to political death for revolutionaries. Or even worse, we could force the workers to reject our ideas, ideas which attract them now and will continue to attract them so long as we are among them, marching, fighting, and dying, or winning and rejoicing.”

The comrades, smiling ironically, replied: “Old buddy, you are deviating from the normal Anarchist tactic. We should be listening to the voice of our movement, as you yourself called upon us to do at our first meeting.”

“You are quite right, we must and we shall listen to the voice of our movement, if there is a movement. At present I don’t see it. But I know we must work now, without delay. I proposed a plan of work and we have already adopted it. What else remains to do, except work?”…

About the middle of the week, the elected delegates gathered at the school to discuss the re-election of the Public Committee…

The elected peasant delegates consulted with the delegates from the factory workers and jointly passed a resolution demanding the re-election of the “Public Committee”…

The delegates returned to their own electors and discussed the resolution with them. When the resolution had been confirmed by the electors, a date was set for new elections.

Meanwhile the members of our group were preparing the peasants for the organization of the Peasants’ Union.

During this period an agent arrived from the District Committee of the Peasants’ Union, formed from the ranks of the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. This was Comrade Krylov-Martynov, who was charged with organizing a committee of the Peasants’ Union in Gulyai-Pole…

The SR Krylov-Martynov was an effective orator. He described in glowing terms to the peasants the impending struggle of the Socialist-Revolutionaries for the transfer of land to the peasants without compensation. This struggle was to take place in the Constituent Assembly, expected to be convened in the near future. For this struggle the support of the peasants was required. He appealed to them to organize themselves into a Peasants’ Union and support the Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

This provided an opening for me and several other members of our group to intervene. I said:

“We, the Anarchists, agree with the Socialist-Revolutionaries on the necessity of the peasants organizing themselves into a Peasants’ Union. But not for the purpose of supporting the SRs in their future oratorical struggle with the social-democrats and kadets in the contemplated Constitutional Struggle (if indeed it ever comes to be).

From the revolutionary Anarchist point of view, the organization of the Peasants’ Union is necessary so the peasants can make the maximum contribution of their vital energies to the revolutionary current. In doing so they will leave their stamp upon the Revolution and determine its concrete results.

These results, for the labouring peasantry, will logically turn out as follows. At present the power of Capital and its creature — its system of organized thuggery — the State — is based on the forced labour and artificially-subjugated intelligence of the labouring masses. But now the labouring masses of the countryside and the cities can struggle to create their own lives and their own freedom. And they can manage this without the leadership of political parties with their proposed debates in the Constituent Assembly.

The labouring peasants and workers shouldn’t even be thinking about the Constituent Assembly. The Constituent Assembly is their enemy. It would be criminal on the part of the workers to expect from it their own freedom and happiness.

The Constituent Assembly is a gambling casino run by political parties. Ask anyone who hangs around such places if it is possible to visit them without being deceived! It’s impossible.

The working class — the peasantry and the workers — will inevitably be deceived if they send their own representatives to the Constituent Assembly.

Now is not the time for the labouring peasantry to be thinking about the Constituent Assembly and about organizing support for political parties, including the Socialist-Revolutionaries. No! The peasants and the workers are facing more serious problems. They should prepare to transform all the land, factories, and workshops into communal property as the basis on which they will build a new life.

The Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union, which we are proposing to found at this meeting, will be the first step in this direction…”

The SR agent of the District Party Committee of the Peasants’ Union was not perturbed by our intervention. In fact he agreed with us. And so on March 28–29, 1917, was founded the Gulyai-Pole Peasants’ Union.

Nestor Makhno

Makhno – fighting for the revolution

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Gregory Maksimov: The Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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Gregory Maksimov, after being forced to leave the Soviet Union, continued to support the anarcho-syndicalist cause. One of his better known pamphlets, The Program of Anarcho-Syndicalism (1927), sets forth what he saw as the anarcho-syndicalist alternative to capitalism, parliamentarianism, and dictatorship. In this section, “General Politics,” he describes the political structure of an anarcho-syndicalist federation in general terms. Noteworthy is his argument that anarchy is a “true democracy,” showing that the anarchist current that conceives of anarchy as a form of direct democracy based on voluntary federation (what I have described elsewhere as “associational democracy”) goes back quite some time, well before Murray Bookchin and more recent writers.

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The General Politics of Anarcho-Syndicalism

The bourgeois-democratic republic, with its formal equality for all people and its formal liberties, in actual fact protects private property and thus inevitably becomes a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and an organization for the pitiless exploitation of the working masses. The same is true of the new Statism in the form of the Soviet republic, even if it is sanctified by the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fact that the State is owner not only of all means of production but also of the life of each individual, places everybody in the position of slaves, of talking robots and, with implacable logic, results in the creation of a new ruling class exploiting the working classes — the dictatorship of the bureaucracy; the State becomes a monstrous machine for the exploitation and total enslavement of the great mass of the people by a small clique.

In contrast, the communal confederation will transform the mass organizations of the working people into the only foundation for the construction of a new, Anarchist society, thus achieving full freedom of movement and full liberty for the individual.

Bourgeois democracy hides its class character under the masquerade of national equality symbolized by universal suffrage. Soviet democracy, on the other hand, sharply accentuates its class character by maintaining that the dictatorship of the proletariat is supposedly essential to the destruction of classes and the State. However, the experience of the Russian revolution has shown that the dictatorship of the proletariat is a fiction, a non-realizable utopia, since, logically and unavoidably, it results in a form of Party dictatorship and, next, a rule of the bureaucracy, i.e. simple absolutism. The Soviet state is forced to pretend that the dictatorship of the bureaucracy is the dictatorship of the proletariat, just as the bourgeoisie pretends that its dictatorship is the “people’s will”.

In contrast, the communal confederation, constituted by thousands of freely acting labor organizations, removes all opportunities for the limitation of liberty and free activity. It definitely prevents the possibility of dictatorship by any class, and, consequently, the possibility of establishing a regime of terror. The basic character of the communal confederation is such that it need have no fear of the widest freedom of rights for all men, independent of their social origin, so long as they work. As a result, true democracy, developed to its logical extreme, can become a reality only under the conditions of a communal confederation. This democracy is Anarchy.

Both bourgeois and soviet democracies limit themselves to formal declarations of political freedom and rights: the freedom of speech, assembly, association, press, strikes, inviolability of the individual, housing, etc. The former establishes these freedoms formally for all, the latter only for the working people. But the administrative practice of these democracies and, more important, the utter economic dependency of the working people, make it completely impossible for them — both in the bourgeois and the proletarian states — to make use of these rights and freedoms.

The full, unlimited rights of man and citizen are possible, in real life rather than in proclamations, in actuality rather than in form, only in conditions of full self-government in the shape of a communal confederation where capitalism and the state do not exist and where printing, paper, etc. will be generally available under the management of the productive federation concerned.

Bourgeois democracy proclaims the rights of men and citizens, but, owing to its governmental and capitalist foundations, it cannot transmute these rights into actual fact. Furthermore, inequality and oppression gradually increase and at the present time, in the epoch of Imperialism, bourgeois democracy has reached the highest degree of intensified racial and national oppression.

Soviet democracy has in this respect made the pretence of a step forward, but the official declaration of the principle of national self-determination has not led, and cannot lead, to the actual self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union. In addition, even in liberating one nation from the domination of another, the Soviet State does not liberate the people of that nation from internal domination. National freedom does not consist, in separation, or in administrative self-rule, but in the freedom of the individuals composing the nation.

The freedom of a nation can have full expression only in a communal confederation in which freedom will become a reality through the liberty of individuals uniting at will in all manner of free associations, including national ones.

Not content with a formal declaration of the equality of the sexes, the Soviet State attempts to achieve it in reality by making very weak and diffident efforts in the direction of the liberation of women from the burdens of housekeeping, from the kitchen and child rearing. But since the State is by nature an enemy of full liberty, so in this issue too it has come up against insurmountable obstacles — obstacles inherent in its own nature — through appropriating to itself those functions of the church and the bourgeois state, the sanctioning and regulation of marriage. The full equality of the sexes and freedom for women are possible only in conditions of liberty for all, and such conditions will come into existence only in the communal confederation.

The experience of a political structure based on a system of free Soviets, which made its appearance at the beginning of the Russian October Revolution, demonstrates that the true organization of society on the basis of a federation of Soviets would not only remove all the negative aspects of bourgeois democracy and parliamentarism, would not only assure to the working masses simplicity in the election and recall of delegates, would not only bring the people closer to their social institutions, but would also destroy the State in all its forms, including dictatorship of the proletariat. Communalism, i.e. the federation of free communes with the Soviets in the field of the political organization of the country, would take the place of the State.

The bourgeois State has transformed the army into a weapon for the suppression of the working masses, and the protection of the State, i.e. the ruling class. In the Soviet State too the army fulfils the same functions. Only the workingmen’s militia, arming all the people, and organized by the Trade Unions and the village communes, can be a true weapon for the protection of general liberty and well-being. A workingmen’s militia will be tantamount to the removal of the State and the class system.

Admitting for the proletariat the guiding role in the Revolution, the Anarchists believe it would endanger the cause of liberation if any kind of privileges were instituted for them in relation to other categories of the working people. Equality of rights and obligations for all from the first days of the Revolution — that is the fundamental demand of social justice.

Gregory Maksimov, 1927

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The Economics of Anarchy

anarchist revolt

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

Tree of Anarchy

The Economics of Anarchy

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

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eco-communalism

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

anarchist communism kropotkin

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

mutualism

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

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

revolution

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

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

Alexander Berkman

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

Robert Graham

emma goldman

Resisting the Nation State

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In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of my anthology of anarchist writings, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how movements against nuclear proliferation and the draft in the early to late 1960s helped turn some  people towards anarchism, as they came to see the role of the state in perpetuating rather than resolving conflict.

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Resisting the Nation State

The anti-war movements in Europe and North America that began to emerge during the late 1950s started as “Ban the Bomb” or anti-nuclear peace movements, the primary aim of which was to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. These movements began to adopt a more expansive anti-war approach as draft resistance movements also began to emerge, first in France in response to the war in Algeria, and then in the U.S. as the war in Vietnam escalated and intensified.

Many people in the various peace movements were pacifists. Some of them began to move towards an anarchist position as they came to realize that the banning of nuclear weapons was either unlikely or insufficient given the existing system of international power relations. Many came to agree with Randolf Bourne that “war is the health of the state” and became advocates of non-violent revolution, for one “cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State” (Volume Two, Selection 34).

Veteran anarchists, such as Vernon Richards, despite recognizing the limitations of peace marches, realized that for “some the very fact of having broken away from the routine pattern of life to take part” in a march, and “for others the effort of will needed to join a demonstration for the first time in their lives, are all positive steps in the direction of ‘rebellion’ against the Establishment,” for there “are times when the importance of an action is for oneself” (Volume Two, Selection 33).

Some of the people opposed to conscription in France and the U.S. also gravitated toward anarchism, as they came to realize not only that meaningful draft resistance was illegal, thereby making them criminals, but also the degree to which those in positions of power were prepared to use force not only against their “external” enemies but against their own people to prevent the undermining of their authority. As Jean Marie Chester wrote in France in the early 1960s, the young draft resisters had, “through their refusal, unwittingly stumbled upon anarchism” (Volume Two, Selection 31).

Unlike more conventional conceptions of civil disobedience, where demonstrators emphasize that their disobedience is an extraordinary reaction to an extreme policy, accepting the punishment meted out to them because they do not want to challenge the legitimacy of authority in general, anarchist disobedience and direct action suffer from no such contradictions but instead seek to broaden individual acts of disobedience into rejection of institutional power by encouraging people to question authority in all its aspects. From individual acts of revolt and protest, and experience of the repressive measures the State is prepared to resort to in response, will come a growing recognition of the illegitimacy of State power and the hierarchical and exploitative relationships which that power protects. As the Dutch Provos put it, the “means of repression” the authorities “use against us” will force them “to show their real nature,” making “themselves more and more unpopular,” ripening “the popular conscience… for anarchy” (Volume Two, Selection 50).

During the 1960s, anarchist ideas were reintroduced to student rebels, anti-war protesters, environmentalists and a more restless general public by people like Murray Bookchin (Volume Two, Selection 48), Daniel Guérin (Volume Two, Selection 49), the Cohn-Bendit brothers (Volume Two, Selection 51), Jacobo Prince (Volume Two, Selection 52), Nicolas Walter (Volume Two, Selection 54) and Noam Chomsky (Volume Two, Selection 55). While libertarian socialist intellectuals such as Claude Lefort from the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, who came from a Marxist background, regarded the anarchist ideas and actions of the student radicals of the May-June 1968 events in France as the “brilliant invention” of “naïve prodigies,” the Cohn-Bendit brothers, who were directly involved, replied that, to the contrary, those events were “the result of arduous research into revolutionary theory and practice,” marking “a return to a revolutionary tradition” that the Left had long since abandoned, namely anarchism (Volume Two, Selection 51).

Robert Graham

May '68 - the beginning of a long struggle

May ’68 – the beginning of a long struggle

Resistance or Revolution

Respect existence expect resistance

In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the increasing differences between anarchists, not just in English speaking countries, but also in Europe, over how best to deal with the political realities emerging after the Second World War. These realities included the Cold War, and outright conflict, between the US and Soviet blocs, decreasing militancy among the working classes, and various struggles for personal liberation in the face of growing social conformity.

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Resistance or Revolution

Not all anarchists were enamoured with the turn toward personal liberation, alternative lifestyles and cultural change in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Italy, the class struggle anarchists of the Impulso group denounced these anarchist currents as counter-revolutionary, much as Murray Bookchin did many years later (Bookchin, 1995).

The Impulso group described these approaches as “resistencialism,” a term suggested in 1949 by the French anarchist paper, Études Anarchistes, to describe the new perspectives and approaches being developed by anarchists in the English speaking countries in the aftermath of the Second World War which emphasized resistance to authoritarian and hierarchical modes of thought and organization, and the creation of libertarian alternatives here and now, regardless of the prospects of a successful social revolution.

What the Impulso group’s critique illustrates is the degree to which these new conceptions and approaches had spread beyond England and the USA by 1950, when they published their broadside, for much of their attack is directed toward the Italian anarchist journal, Volontà, belying the claim that the “new” anarchism was a largely “Anglo-Saxon” phenomenon (Volume Two, Selection 38).

The Volontà group, with which Camillo Berneri’s widow, and long time anarchist, Giovanna Berneri (1897-1962) was associated, had begun exploring new ideas and analyses which have since become the stock in trade of so-called “post-modern” anarchists (Volume Three, Chapter 12), including a critique of conventional conceptions of rationality and intellectual constructs which seek to constrain thought and action within a specific ideological framework. As one contributor to Volontà put it, “All ideologues are potential tyrants” (Volume Two, Selection 38).

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The Impulso group denounced Volontà for celebrating “irrationalism” and “chaos,” turning anarchism into “a motley, whimsical subjective representation,” and for abandoning any concept of class struggle. For the Impulso group, anarchism was instead “the ideology of the working and peasant class, the product of a reasoned re-elaboration of revolutionary experiences, the theoretical weapon for the defence of the unitary, ongoing interests of the labouring class, the objective outcome of a specific historic process,” illustrating the degree to which the class struggle anarchists had incorporated into their outlook several Marxian elements (Volume Two, Selection 38).

For them, there were “three vital coefficients to the act of revolution: the crisis in the capitalist system… active participation by the broad worker and peasant masses… and the organized action of the activist minority.” To the criticism that the “masses” can never become self-governing if led by an elite activist minority, the Impulso group responded that an informed, consciously anarchist minority cannot betray the revolution because its theory “is not only the correct general theory” but the correct theory “especially in relation to the activist minority and its nature, its functions, [and] its limitations” (Volume Two, Selection 38).

This claim that an activist minority of anarchists would never effectively assume positions of authority because their general theory eschews such a role is not particularly persuasive on either theoretical or historical grounds. No matter how well informed by or committed to anarchist principles, the “activist minority,” armed with their “correct” theory will, as Malatesta had said of the Platformists, be prone “to excommunicate from anarchism all those who do not accept their program,” promoting sectarianism rather than creating a unified movement (Volume One, Selection 115).

Neno Vasco (1920) and other anarchists had long argued that the focus of anarchist minorities should instead be on fostering the self-activity of the masses. This is because by “acting directly,” as Murray Bookchin has written, “we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based on self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible” (Volume Three, Selection 10). That being informed and guided by anarchist theory does not prevent one from assuming a more conventional leadership role was demonstrated by those CNT-FAI “militants” who joined the Republican government in Spain during the 1936-39 Revolution and Civil War (Volume One, Selections 127 & 128).

The Impulso group saw themselves performing a “locomotive function,” pulling the masses toward liberation through the revolutionary upheaval that would inevitably result from the crisis of international capitalism, committing themselves to “a harsh self-discipline” (Volume Two, Selection 38), the kind of self-abnegation that Bakunin had warned against earlier (Volume One, Selection 20).

Despite the denunciations of the Impulso group, it was the “new” anarchism pioneered by the so-called “resistencialists” that was to inspire radicals in the 1960s, with people like the Cohn-Bendit brothers writing, “Act with others, not for them. Make the revolution here and now,” for “it is for yourself that you make the revolution,” not some abstract ideal to which all should be sacrificed (Volume Two, Selection 51).

Robert Graham

cohn bendit gauchisme

Leftism – remedy for the Communist senile disorder

The Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939)

CNT Anarchist militia

CNT Anarchist militia

Continuing with my installments from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, here I present my concluding remarks on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War. In Volume One of the Anarchism anthology, I included a chapter on the Spanish Revolution. I have also created a page on this blog on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.

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The CNT in the Spanish Civil War

The greatest controversy in which Abad de Santillán was involved arose from the decisions by the CNT during the Spanish Civil War to accept posts in the Catalonian governing council in September 1936 and, in November 1936, the central government in Madrid. In December 1936, Abad de Santillán became the Councillor of Economy in the regional government in Catalonia (the Generalitat). Not only did the “militants” of the FAI fail to prevent this fatal compromise of anarchist principles, some of the CNT ministers were themselves members of the FAI (such as Juan García Oliver, who became the Minister of Justice in the Madrid government, and Abad de Santillán himself). The decision to join the government was engineered by the National Committee of the CNT (which became the de facto ruling council of the CNT during the course of the Civil War) in order to obtain arms and financing, neither of which were forthcoming.

The decision of the CNT leadership to join the Spanish government was sharply criticized by many well known anarchists, including Camillo Berneri, Sébastien Faure, and Alexander Schapiro. Writing for the IWA publication, The International, the Swedish anarcho-syndicalist Albert Jensen (1879-1957) pointed out that it was by way of revolution that the workers in Catalonia had prevented General Franco from seizing power when he began the military revolt against the republican government in July 1936. Anarchists and syndicalists stormed military barracks, seized weapons and began collectivizing industry, while the republican government was in a state of virtual collapse. However, in order to maintain a “united front” against fascism, and to avoid imposing their own de facto dictatorship, the CNT-FAI decided it was better to work within the republican government rather than against it.

The problem was that, as Jensen pointed out, during a civil war the government “must have recourse always to dictatorship,” governing by decree and imposing military discipline, so instead of imposing an “anarchist” dictatorship the CNT-FAI was propping up a “counter-revolutionary” dictatorship, which hardly constituted “loyalty to [anarchist] ideas” and principles. “Wounded unto death, the State received new life thanks to the governmental participation of the CNT-FAI.” If the CNT-FAI had to work with other anti-fascists, whether capitalists or the authoritarian Communists loyal to Moscow, it would have been better for the CNT-FAI to remain outside the government, taking the position that “under no pretext, would they tolerate any attack on the revolutionary accomplishments and that they would defend these with all the necessary means” (Volume One, Selection 127).

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The Spanish Revolution

In the factories and in the countryside, in areas that did not immediately fall under fascist control, there was a far-reaching social revolution. Spanish peasants collectivized the land and workers took over their factories. In the factories, the workers in assembly would make policy decisions and elect delegates to coordinate production and distribution. In the countryside, village and town assemblies were held in which all members of the community were able to participate.

In “the agrarian regions and especially in Aragon,” observed Gaston Leval (1895-1978), “a new organism appeared: the Collective.” The collective was not a trade union or syndical organization, “for it encompasses all those who wish to join it whether they are producers in the classic economic sense or not.” Neither was it a commune or municipal council, as it “encompasses at the same time the Syndicate and municipal functions.” The “whole population,” not merely the producers, “takes part in [the] management” of the collective, dealing with all sorts of issues, “whether it is a question of policy for agriculture, for the creation of new industries, for social solidarity, medical service or public education” (Volume One, Selection 126).

Although the anarchist collectives were ultimately destroyed, first by the Stalinist Communists in republican areas, and then by the fascists as they subjugated all of Spain, they constitute the greatest achievement of the Spanish anarchist movement. Through the crucible of the social revolution itself, the Spanish people developed this new, more inclusive form of libertarian organization which transcended the limits of anarcho-syndicalist trade union and factory committee forms of organization, inspiring generations to come.

CNT final blow

Counter-Revolution in Spain

Those anarchists who attempted to work within the republican government were consistently outmaneuvered by the Republicans, Socialists and Communists. The areas in which anarchists were free to implement their ideas continued to shrink, but it was the May Days in Barcelona in 1937 that effectively marked the end of the anarchist social revolution in Spain. Factories and services under anarchist inspired workers’ self-management were attacked by Republican and Communist forces while they did battle with the anarchist militias, and several prominent anarchists were murdered, including Camillo Berneri and the Libertarian Youth leader, Alfredo Martinez. The CNT leadership negotiated a truce with the Republican government rather than engage in a “civil war” within the civil war. Hundreds of anarchists were killed in the fighting, and many more were imprisoned. The Socialists and Communists, unsuccessful in having the CNT declared illegal, forced them out of the government and continued their campaign of “decollectivization” and disarmament of the anarchist groups.

Given this disastrous turn of events, Abad de Santillán had second thoughts about the CNT’s policy of collaboration. By April 1937, he had already ceased being a member of the Catalonian cabinet. The following year he denounced those “anarchists” who had used their positions within the movement “as a springboard to defect to the other side where the pickings are easier and the thorns less sharp,” obtaining “high positions of political and economic privilege.” The CNT-FAI’s participation “in political power,” which he had also once “thought advisable due to circumstances, in light of the war,” had demonstrated “yet again what Kropotkin once said of the parliamentary socialists: ‘You mean to conquer the State, but the State will end up conquering you’” (Volume One, Selection 128).

Abad de Santillán noted that the self-styled anarchist “avant-garde,” who fancied themselves the “best trained, most prestigious, sharpest witted,” himself included, were not “in the vanguard of economic and social change” but instead “proved a hindrance, a brake, a hurdle to that change.” He had to admit that the “broad masses” of the Spanish people “were better prepared than their supposed mentors and guides when it came to revolutionary reconstruction.” For Abad de Santillán, by “standing with the State and thus against the people,” anarchists who were working within the Republican government were “not only committing an irreparable act of betrayal of the revolution,” they were “also betraying the war effort, because we are denying it the active support of the people,” who were becoming increasingly alienated from the Republican government as it sought to dismantle the anarchist collectives and other organs of self-management that had been created by the people themselves (Volume One, Selection 128).

Under the pressure of civil war, the CNT-FAI came more and more to resemble a conventional political party. The CNT’s National Committee would negotiate with the Republican government, and then present whatever deals they could get to the membership as a fait accompli. In effect, the “inverse” pyramidal federalist structure of the CNT was turned upside down, as the CNT began to function as a top-down political organization. The anarchist militias were dissolved, broken up or absorbed into the Communist dominated Republican army and subjected to strict military discipline (Richards, 1972).

Looking back on the Revolution and Civil War, José Peirats (1908-1989), active in the CNT and later its historian, believed that “those of us who consistently opposed collaboration with the government had as our only alternative a principled, heroic defeat.” Nevertheless, he was sympathetic to those principled anarchists for whom “the only solution was to leave an indelible mark on the present without compromising the future,” through their “constructive revolutionary experiments like the collectives, artistic and cultural achievements, new models of free, communal living.” This entailed “staying out of intrigues, avoiding complicity with the counterrevolution within the government, protecting the organization and its militants from the vainglory of rulers or the pride of the newly rich.” The seemingly insurmountable difficulties in maintaining these revolutionary achievements in the midst of civil war caused Peirats to question not these achievements, but “the idea of revolution” itself, conceived as a mass armed uprising seeking to overthrow the existing regime which inevitably degenerates into civil war (Peirats: 188-189), a critique further developed by Luc Bonet (Volume Three, Selection 12). This process of rethinking revolution was to be continued by many anarchists after the Spanish Revolution and the Second World War.

Robert Graham

Peirats CNT Spanish Revolution

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

volume-3

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

kurds

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

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