Neither East Nor West

Neither east nor west

In the next installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss how in the aftermath of the Second World War, confronted by the “cold war” between the United States and the Soviet Union, anarchists attempted to maintain an independent position that refused any compromise with either power block. Marie Louise Berneri’s slogan, “Neither East Nor West,” was clearly meant to echo the 19th century anarchist battle cry, “Neither God Nor Master.” One of the more interesting attempts to mark out an independent path for anarchist movements was made by the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation, which developed a conception of an interlocking network of organizations that anticipated the notion of “horizontal federations” articulated by Colin Ward and other anarchists in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the Bulgarian anarchist movement was crushed by the Stalinists when they turned Bulgaria into a Soviet client state.

anarchist communism

Neither East Nor West

After the Second World War, despite the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the United States, anarchists sought to keep alive their libertarian vision of a free and equal society in which every individual is able to flourish. Marie Louise Berneri coined the phrase, “Neither East nor West,” signifying anarchist opposition to all power blocs (Volume Two, Selection 10). Anarchists continued to oppose colonialism and the imperialist expansion of the Soviet and American empires (Volume Two, Selections 8, 9, 28, 29 & 31).

Due to their opposition to both dominant power blocs, during the Cold War organized anarchist movements faced almost insurmountable obstacles, similar to the situation faced by the Spanish anarchists during the Revolution and Civil War. In Bulgaria, there was a significant pre-war anarchist communist movement which reemerged briefly after the defeat of Nazi Germany, but which was quickly suppressed by their Soviet “liberators.” The Bulgarian anarchists repudiated fascism as an “attempt to restore absolutism [and] autocracy… with the aim of defending the economic and spiritual dominance of the privileged classes.” They rejected “political democracy” (representative government) because “its social foundations [are] based on the centralized State and capitalism,” resulting in “chaos, contradictions and crime.” As for State socialism, “it leads to State capitalism—the most monstrous form of economic exploitation and oppression, and of total domination of social and individual freedom” (Volume Two, Selection 7).

The program of the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation is noteworthy today for its emphasis on anarchist federalism as “a dense and complex network” of village communities, regional communes, productive enterprises, trade unions, distribution networks and consumer organizations that would be “grouped in a general confederation of exchange and consumption for satisfying the needs of all inhabitants” (Volume Two, Selection 7). Such network forms of organization mark an advance over the “inverse pyramid” structure that had long been advocated by anarcho-syndicalists, which was much more prone to being transformed into a more conventional, hierarchical form of organization during times of crisis, as in Spain. By the early 1950s, many anarcho-syndicalists were advocating similar horizontal networks based on factory councils and community assemblies, resembling a “honeycomb,” as Philip Sansom put it, in which “all the cells are of equal importance and fit into each other,” instead of control being “maintained from the centre” (Volume Two, Selection 58).

Within their own organizations, the Bulgarian anarchist communists advocated a form of consensus decision-making. However, while “the decision of the majority is not binding on the minority,” in practice “the minority generally rallies to the decision of the majority,” after the majority has had an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom of its position. Thus, while the minority was not bound to follow the decisions of the majority, the majority was not prevented from acting in accordance with its own views, such that the minority could not assume de facto authority over the majority by refusing to agree with the majority decision, as sometimes happens under other forms of consensus decision-making. The Bulgarian anarchist communists recognized that in broader based mass organizations that were not specifically anarchist in orientation, majority rule would generally prevail, but even then “the minority may be freed from the obligation to apply a general decision, on condition that it does not prevent the execution of such a decision” (Volume Two, Selection 7). In this regard, their position is remarkably similar to that of contemporary advocates of participatory democracy, such as Carole Pateman (1985: 159-162; see also Graham, 1996), and anarchist advocates of various forms of direct democracy (Volume Three, Chapter 2).

Robert Graham

anarchist communism 2

Drawing the Line

Read Anarchy & Order

During the Second World War, those anarchists who were still able to do so began to rethink anarchist approaches to social revolution. Revolution, conceived as a mass, armed uprising, was appearing more and more remote, as the warring states created more and more lethal weaponry in their struggles for world domination. Some anarchists in England and the United States, such as Herbert Read, Alex Comfort and Paul Goodman, began to not only advocate non-violent direct action and mass civil disobedience, but to advocate a kind of “revolution of everyday life,” a phrase later made popular by the Situationists. They no longer  thought it was possible to take on state power on its own terms, the terrain of mass military mobilization and destructive fire power, culminating with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the War. Instead, they argued that rather than trying to substitute a new order for the old one, anarchists should seek to expand the “spheres of freedom” until they encompassed all of social life. In more modern parlance, they advocated creating ever widening autonomous zones (see Hakim Bey, “TAZ,” in Anarchism, Volume 3, Selection 11). The following brief summary of their views is taken from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to my anthology of anarchist writings from ancient China to the present day, Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Drawing the Line

Drawing the Line

Bearing in mind the difficulties recently faced by the Spanish anarchists in the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, at the beginning of the Second World War Herbert Read warned against the revolutionary seizure of power, instead looking forward to “a spontaneous and universal insurrection” (Volume Two, Selection 1), but one which would employ nonviolent methods, for people “cannot struggle against” the modern state, armed with atomic bombs, “on the plane of force… Our action must be piecemeal, non-violent, insidious and universally pervasive” (Volume Two, Selection 36). Alex Comfort took a similar position, arguing that the “very states which are able to make and use atomic weapons are singularly vulnerable, by their very complexity, to the attacks of individual disobedience” (Volume Two, Selection 12).

Paul Goodman described this process as “Drawing the Line, beyond which [we] cannot cooperate.” But although we “draw the line in their conditions; we proceed on our conditions,” replacing “the habit of coercion [with] a habit of freedom… Our action must be aimed, not at a future establishment; but… at fraternal arrangements today, progressively incorporating more and more of the social functions into our free society,” for the creation of a “free society cannot be the substitution of a ‘new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of the social life” (Volume Two, Selection 11).

Read, Comfort and Goodman all advocated various forms of non-violent direct action, including war resistance and opposition to conscription through such means as draft evasion. Such attitudes were dangerous and unpopular, particularly during the Second World War. Anarchists who practiced draft resistance were imprisoned in France, England and the United States. It was only in the early 1960s in France, and a few years later in the United States, that mass draft resistance movements emerged in opposition to the French war in Algeria and the U.S. war in Vietnam (Volume Two, Selection 31).

Robert Graham

alex comfort on anarchism

Making Sense of Malatesta

Making Sense

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

Errico Malatesta

Errico Malatesta

Malatesta’s Anarchist Gradualism

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Davide Turcato

malatesta anarchist spirit

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.

CNT at the barricades

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).


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

Spanish Anarchism

The CNT fights fascism in Spain

The CNT fights fascism in Spain

July 19, 1936 marks the 79th anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Revolution, when anarchists across Spain took up arms against the reactionary Spanish military forces that were attempting to take over Spain. What ensued was a bloody civil war and the ultimate defeat of the Spanish anarchists three years later, as a result of an arms embargo, Communist treachery and a fascist military machine fuelled by weapons and military expertise from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Spanish anarchist movement began in the late 1860s, when the majority of the Spanish Federation of the International Workingmen’s Association (the so-called “First International”) adopted an anarchist stance, something which I discuss in much more detail in my new book, ‘We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It’: The First International and the Origins of the Anarchist Movement. I included several selections regarding the Spanish anarchist movement in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

CNT Poster 'Hail the Heroes'

CNT Poster ‘Hail the Heroes’

By the beginning of the Spanish Revolution and Civil War, over 500,000 people belonged to anarchist affiliated organizations, primarily the anarcho-syndicalist trade union federation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT, or ‘National Confederation of Workers’). Toward the end of the Civil War, over two million people belonged to these organizations, but by then they had been almost completely coopted by the Communist dominated Republican government, and had developed a bureaucratic structure that mirrored those of other left wing organizations (with the exception of the Stalinist Spanish Communist Party, whose authoritarian structure and methods were incomparable to other left organizations). In the following excerpt from my essay, “The Anarchist Current,” which forms the Afterword to Volume Three of the Anarchism anthology, I discuss the Spanish anarchist movement on the eve of the Revolution. I have created a page on the anarchists in the Spanish Revolution, which includes additional material that I was unable to fit into Volume One.

'The Revolution and the War are Inseparable'

‘The Revolution and the War are Inseparable’

Spanish Anarchism: Prelude to Revolution

The Spanish anarchist movement which Bakunin had helped inspire experienced its greatest triumphs and most tragic defeats during the Spanish Revolution and Civil War (1936-1939). The two most prominent anarchist groups in Spain were the Iberian Anarchist Federation (the FAI) and the anarcho-syndicalist trade union confederation, the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (the CNT). The FAI was a federation of anarchist revolutionaries which sought to foment social revolution and to keep the CNT on an anarchist path. This “dual organization” model had been followed in Spain since the days of the First International, when Bakunin recruited Spanish radicals into his Alliance of Social Revolutionaries. Members of the Alliance were to ensure that the Spanish sections of the International adopted Bakunin’s collectivist anarchist program.

By the 1930s, the Spanish anarchist movement had moved toward an anarchist communist position, although the doctrine of “anarchism without adjectives,” which originated in the debates between the anarchist collectivists and anarchist communists in the 1890s, continued to be influential. Diego Abad de Santillán (1897-1983), who played a prominent role in the Argentine and Spanish anarchist movements, saw anarchism as representing a broad “humanistic craving” which “seeks to defend man’s dignity and freedom, regardless of circumstances and under every political system, past, present and future.” Anarchism must therefore be without adjectives because it is not tied to any particular economic or political system, nor is anarchy only possible at a certain stage of history or development. Abad de Santillán argued that anarchism “can survive and assert its right to exist alongside plough and team of oxen as readily as alongside the modern combine-harvester; its mission in the days of steam was the same as it is in the age of the electric motor or jet engine or the modern age of the computer and atomic power” (Volume Two, Selection 53).

Despite his endorsement of “anarchism without adjectives,” Abad de Santillán did not shy away from controversy. Although he participated in the anarcho-syndicalist movements in Argentina and Spain, he urged anarchists “not to forget that the Syndicate is, as an economic by-product of capitalist organization, a social phenomenon spawned by the needs of its day. Clinging to its structures after the revolution would be tantamount to clinging to the cause that spawned it: capitalism” (Volume One, Selection 94).

On the eve of the Spanish Revolution, when the CNT reaffirmed its commitment to libertarian communism (Volume One, Selection 124), Abad de Santillán argued not only that people should be free to choose between “communism, collectivism or mutualism,” but that “the prerequisite” of such freedom is a certain level of material abundance that can only be achieved through an integrated economic network of productive units (Volume One, Selection 125).

Robert Graham



Kobane Under Attack

ISIS attacks Kobane

ISIS attacks Kobane

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

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Tev-Dem (Movement for a Democratic Society)

Kobane and its Reconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zaher Baher, June 2015

kobane solidarity

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


Kropotkin on the Paris Commune

The Paris Commune

The Paris Commune

In Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I included excerpts from Peter Kropotkin’s essay on the Paris Commune, in which he argued that the lesson to be drawn from the Commune was the need for the people themselves to abolish capitalism and to create anarchist communism through their own direct action. As this week marks the anniversary of the brutal suppression of the Commune by the French government in Versailles, which massacred some 30,000 people in Paris during the so-called “Bloody Week” at the end of May 1871, I thought I would reproduce the section from Kropotkin’s essay in which he discusses some of the lessons to be drawn from the Commune. The translation is by Nicolas Walter, and first appeared in the Freedom Press pamphlet, The Paris Commune, Freedom Pamphlet No. 8 (1971), published to mark the 100th anniversary of the Commune.

Burning of the Tuileries by George Jules Victor Clairin, 1871

‘Burning of the Tuileries,’ by George Jules Victor Clairin, 1871

Lessons from the Paris Commune

What idea does the Paris Commune represent? And why is this idea so attractive to the workers of every land, of every nationality?

The answer is easy. The revolution of 1871 was above all a popular one. It was made by the people themselves, it sprang spontaneously from within the masses, and it was among the great mass of the people that it found its defenders, its heroes, its martyrs–and it is exactly for this ‘mob’ character that the bourgeoisie will never forgive it. And at the same time the moving idea of this revolution–vague, it is true, unconscious perhaps, but nevertheless pronounced and running through all its actions–is the idea of the social revolution, trying at last to establish after so many centuries of struggle real liberty and real equality for all.

It was the revolution of ‘the mob’ marching forward to conquer its rights.

Attempts have been made, it is true, and are still being made to change the real direction of this revolution and to represent it as a simple attempt to regain the independence of Paris and thus to constitute a little state within France. But nothing can be less true. Paris did not try to isolate itself from France, any more than to conquer it by force of arms; it did not try to shut itself up within its walls like a monk in a cloister; it was not inspired by a narrow parochial spirit.

If it claimed its independence, if it wished to prevent the interference of the central power in its affairs, it was because it saw in that independence a means of quietly working out the bases of future organization and bringing about within itself a social revolution–a revolution which would have completely transformed the whole system of production and exchange by basing them on justice, which would have completely modified human relations by putting them on a footing of equality, and which would have remade the morality of our society by giving it a basis in the principles of equity and solidarity.

Communal independence was then but a means for the people of Paris, and the social revolution was their end.

This end would have certainly been attained if the revolution of March 18 had been able to take its natural course, if the people of Paris had not been slashed, stabbed, shot and disembowelled by the murderers of Versailles. To find a clear and precise idea, comprehensible to everyone and summing up in a few words what had to be done to bring about the revolution–such was indeed the preoccupation of the people of Paris from the earliest days of their independence.

But a great idea does not germinate in a day, however rapid the elaboration and propagation of ideas during revolutionary periods. It always needs a certain time to develop, to spread throughout the masses, and to translate itself into action, and the Paris Commune lacked this time.

Paris commune

It lacked more than this, because ten years ago the ideas of modern socialism were themselves passing through a period of transition. The Commune was born so to speak between two eras in the development of modern socialism. In 1871 the authoritarian, governmental, and more or less religious communism of 1848 no longer had any hold over the practical and libertarian minds of our era. Where could you find today a Parisian who would agree to shut himself up in a Phalansterian barracks? On the other hand the collectivism which wished to yoke together the wage system and collective property remained incomprehensible, unattractive, and bristling with difficulties in its practical application. And free communism, anarchist communism, was scarcely dawning; it scarcely ventured to provoke the attacks of the worshippers of governmentalism.

Minds were undecided, and the socialists themselves didn’t feel bold enough to begin the demolition of individual property, having no definite end in view. Then they let themselves be fooled by the argument which humbugs have repeated for centuries : ‘Let us first make sure of victory; after that we shall see what can be done.’

First make sure of victory! As if there were any way of forming a free commune so long as you don’t touch property! As if there were any way of defeating the enemy so long as the great mass of the people is not directly interested in the triumph of the revolution, by seeing that it will bring material, intellectual, and moral well-being for everyone! They tried to consolidate the Commune first and put off the social revolution until later, whereas the only way to proceed was to consolidate the Commune by means of the social revolution!

The same thing happened with the principle of government. By proclaiming the free commune, the people of Paris were proclaiming an essentially anarchist principle; but, since the idea of anarchism had at that time only faintly dawned in men’s minds, it was checked half-way, and within the Commune people decided in favour of the old principle of authority, giving themselves a Commune Council, copied from the municipal councils.

If indeed we admit that a central government is absolutely useless to regulate the relations of communes between themselves, why should we admit its necessity to regulate the mutual relations of the groups which make up the commune? And if we leave to the free initiative of the communes the business of coming to a common understanding with regard to enterprises concerning several cities at once, why refuse this same initiative to the groups composing a commune? There is no more reason for a government inside a commune than for a government above the commune.

'Neither God Nor Master'

‘Neither God Nor Master’

But in 1871 the people of Paris, who have overthrown so many governments, were making only their first attempt to rebel against the governmental system itself; so they let themselves be carried away by governmental fetishism and gave themselves a government. The consequences of that are known. The people sent their devoted sons to the town hall. There, immobilized, in the midst of paperwork, forced to rule when their instincts prompted them to be and to move among the people, forced to discuss when it was necessary to act, and losing the inspiration which comes from continual contact with the masses, they found themselves reduced to impotence. Paralysed by their removal from the revolutionary source, the people, they themselves paralysed the popular initiative.

Born during a period of transition, at a time when the ideas of socialism and authority were undergoing a profound modification; emerging from a war, in an isolated centre, under the guns of the Prussians, the Paris Commune was bound to perish.

But by its eminently popular character it began a new era in the series of revolutions, and through its ideas it was the precursor of a great social revolution. The unheard of, cowardly, and ferocious massacres with which the bourgeoisie celebrated its fall, the mean vengeance which the torturers have perpetrated on their prisoners for nine years, these cannibalistic orgies have opened up between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat a chasm which will never be filled. At the time of the next revolution, the people will know what has to be done; they will know what awaits them if they don’t gain a decisive victory, and they will act accordingly.

Indeed we now know that on the day when France bristles with insurgent communes, the people must no longer give themselves a government and expect that government to initiate revolutionary measures. When they have made a clean sweep of the parasites who devour them, they will themselves take possession of all social wealth so as to put it into common according to the principles of anarchist communism.

And when they have entirely abolished property, government, and the state, they will form themselves freely according to the necessities dictated to them by life itself. Breaking its chains and overthrowing its idols, mankind will march them towards a better future, no longer knowing either masters or slaves, keeping its veneration only for the noble martyrs who paid with their blood and sufferings for those first attempts at emancipation which have lighted our way in our march towards the conquest of freedom.

Peter Kropotkin, 1881



Revolution in Rojava: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


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.


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

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


The Platform and Its Critics

Organizational Platform

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

The Original Platformists

The Original Platformists

The Platform and Its Critics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malatesta quote 2

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

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

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

Robert Graham



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