Rethinking Anarchism

Mini-Review: “Revolution in the Air” by Max Elbaum

51ea1HqYCCL I’ve been living in the same rental house for about a year now. It was built around 1900. It’s pretty run down, and kind of quirky. There are always little surprises– the toilet overflows, the stove stops working, you find something wierd behind radiator, or you finally get keys to the attic… there’s always some reminder that you’re not the first to live in the house, and that you really don’t know the place that well.

Reading Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Tunr to Lenin, Mao, and Che” was kind of like finding a room in your rental house that you didn’t know about. People lived here before, in some of the same ways we do, but in different ways too.

Elbaum’s book is about the rise of the “New Communist Movement.” As the 1960s drew to a close, young radicals took inspiration from the uprisings of 1968 and the surge of anti-imperialist organizing in the Third World, deciding to create a new Marxist-Leninist vanguard organization from the ashes of Students for a Democratic Society. SDS collapsed in 1969, splitting into one faction, which later became the Weather Underground organization, and a second faction called “Revolutionary Youth Movement II.” Elbaum’s work focuses on the fate of RYM II.

Many of the new vanguardist organizations engaged in “industrial concentration.” Their cadre entered workplaces to organize wildcat strikes and build a proletarian base. They had to confront many of the questions we grapple with today. What is the role of the revolutionary organization? How do we deal with racism? Is the working class revolutionary? Are trade unions a possible vehicle for social transformation? The would-be vanguardists of the time answered these questions with (mis)quotations from Mao, Che, and Lenin. They built dozens of would-be vanguard parties, each announcing that it had the “correct” political line to lead the masses to the glorious revolution that never came…

By the end of the 1970s, most of the party-building efforts lay in ruins. The refugees of the movement mostly burned out. Some entered the middle class, others sought careers in education or as trade union bureaucrats or non-profit workers. Others went insane, which accounts for the old guy in camo gear sitting next to you on the bus muttering about revolution. In the 1980s, a few of the remaining grouplets united, forming Solidarity, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and a couple other authoritarian wolves in sheep’s clothing.

For those of us on the libertarian left, Elbaum’s story can be a cautionary tale. We’re not the first to live in the creaky old house of the radical left. Let’s take some time to look around and get to know the place, find the skeletons in the closet, and make some repairs. There were others here before us. It didn’t work out for them. But this is our house now.

Here We Go Again…
June 12, 2009, 5:32 am
Filed under: News, Random Shit | Tags: , , , ,

The G20 is coming to Pittsburgh. Maybe I’ll go. I’ve honestly got better things to do, but I need a break. Work sucks. Organizing is hard. Time for a tear gas holiday?

Anarchists have been effectively corralled into regularly-scheduled spectacular protest. Everyone’s got a part to play. We do our thing. The cops do their thing. Everyone says- see you at the trial! and heads home for a few months.

The next protest comes, it starts all over again.

We need to go outside the experience of the enemy. Change the terrain and the actors. Capital is an enormous beast. Let’s find the weak spot and attack it there. I mean this metaphorically. I mean that we should organize rather than protest.

“We, the Anarchists! A Study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927-1937” by Stuart Christie
March 30, 2009, 6:58 pm
Filed under: Books | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

we-coverI just finished Stuart Christie’s (yes, the guy who tried to assassinate Franco) study of the Iberian Anarchist Federation. The book not only attempts to “set the record straight” about what the FAI was and wasn’t, it uses the story of the FAI in the Spanish Revolution to look at the critical question of power and co-optation in revolutionary movements. The story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. In 1936, the workers of the Spanish National Confederation of Labor (CNT) thwarted a fascist uprising intended to topple the liberal state. In crushing the military coup attempt, they seized control of their neighborhoods and workplaces. Armed workers patrolled the streets. The revolution was an accomplished fact.

The revolutionary leaders were overwhelmed by their own success. Cracks immediately began to emerge in their own belief in the ability of the working class to emancipate itself. Most of the “notables” of the CNT and FAI sold out the membership, agreeing to the establishment of a provisional state apparatus and the repression of the anarchist movement’s own “uncontrollables.” Before long, the Stalinists and liberals had outmaneuvered the Anarchists in the government, leading to a collapse in revolutionary morale, and eventually, a fascist victory.

According to Christie, the fate of the FAI should serve as a cautionary tale to anarchists in struggle. As it turns out, we are our own worst enemies. We are not exempt from what has been termed the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” in social groupings. A permanent leadership tends to emerge, which eventually becomes more invested in its own survival as an elite than in the success of the struggle.

This question is not merely theoretical navel-gazing. The dynamics of “oligarchization” play out every day in our organizations. How do we build a truly libertarian mass organization? Our ability to make a revolution depends on our ability to answer this question.

December 27, 2008, 6:33 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , , , , ,

I just took a look at the call for a “Celebrate Peoples’ History, Build Popular Power BLOC” at the January 20th Inauguration. Seems like a pretty good idea to me. The Anarchist movement in the US is still mostly thrashing around in its little ghetto,  uncomprehending of the realities facing working people and the possibilities this creates (take Crimethinc’s recent assertion that the rebellion in Greece had little to do with economic conditions, for example).

Predictably, the call has caused quite a stir amongst the brick and bottles caucus, with long comment threads on, and Many Anarchists have a serious deficiency in understanding how to build movements for change. I like the Popular Power Bloc because it will create opportunities for dialogue with the same people who will be open to our ideas in 6 months when the crisis in capitalism is that much deeper.

That said, there’s a place for confrontation and Black Bloc tactics. Streetfighting can be a valuable radicalizing experience for youth. Taken far enough, it can stop certain state initiatives. In addition, the situations rioters face in the streets might actually be somewhat prefigurative of what a revolutionary transformation will look like.

The question is how streetfighting can be one tactic within a broader strategy of social change. In countries with a more developed radical left, youth sections of the various radical parties and unions sponsor demonstrations that often turn into riots. Check out for example. These organizations are extremely popular and help build a radical youth culture.

The danger is that the clashes with their attendant macho image get fetishized and mistaken for radicalism in its own right. In the US, the result is a kind of infantile approach to politics which treats the streets as the be-all of radical politics.

The question is how to move beyond streetfighting into more serious, effective, long-term approaches to change. One idea is to build up the mass organizations that could make this possible, and then start youth wings (like ANTIFA of ARA) that allow kids to taste confrontation so they can get down to the real revolutionary struggle in their neighborhoods, schools, homes, and workplaces.

It’s one thing when Crimethinc puts out a call for a Black Bloc at Obama’s inauguration, alienating millions of potential supporters. It’s another when the youth wing of an anarchist federation or union makes demands and then stages disruptive demonstrations to win them.

To the Brink

Insurrection in Greece. Riots in China. Factory occupation in Chicago.

The pace of things seems to be quickening. A friend of mine says, this is our time. Which of course raises the question, what do we do?

Fortunately, we don’t really need to answer this question ourselves. People already are doing something, it’s up to us to support them, and perhaps, draw out the most radical content of the struggle.

As moments of resistance multiply, the radical lessons become clearer. We don’t need capital and the state. If workers can occupy the factory, workers can run the factory. If workers can run the factory, workers can run the world.

This is the syllogism of direct action. Direct action is not only a tactic to be used to win victories within a larger strategy based on a diversity of tactics. Direct action is inherently revolutionary in that it points beyond itself. Within direct action are the seeds of a new social order, an order without bosses or bureaucrats, capital or the state.

As long as reformist trade union bureaucrats or politicians remain the ideological leaders of the working class, they will seek to stifle the potential of the working class and obscure the meaning of direct action. Workers will take society to the brink, and the reformists will coax them back down.

It’s our job to push the world over the edge.

So how do we do this? How can we act to realize the radical potential of mass struggle?

Here’s a few ideas I’ve some up with based on thinking about how I would act if I lived in Greece, or Chicago, or China. In the abstract,:

-Prefiguration. In a revolutionary situation, the struggle is final. In this sense, the struggle does not prefigure the future. The struggle is the future. The seizure of capitalist assets does not prefigure the seize of capitalist assets in a future revolution; the seizure of capitalist assets is the revolution. There is no turning back. For this reason, the struggle must create the kind of society we want to live in: non-hieararchical, non-oppressive.

-Polarization. Without the support of broad strata of the people of this planet, any alternative will be unable to expand, and will be crushed. It is necessary to polarize the world against the enemy to ensure the safety of liberated areas and enable future expansion. We should act to bring the broad masses to the side of the insurgent workers, even if this means making compromises on the public message in the media.

-Dual Power/Reclamation. Any challenge to capital or the state must endeavor to not only hold territory or assets hostage to win demands, but actually establish a permanent base, linked to other bases in a network of counterpower. The goal should not just be to win isolated struggles, but to hold on to assets, neighborhoods, and constituencies. In the decisive moment, assets should be seized rapidly, then set into motion to create more resources to use in the war against capital. For example, media installations should be taken over permanently in order to spread news of the revolution. This will help maintain and deepen social polarization.

-Generalization. Support is not enough. If the revolution does not expand, it will collapse. The struggle must be generalized, or globalized, in order to stretch out the forces of the enemy (at minimum) or establish a sustainable counterpower culminating in revolution (at maximum). This requires global solidarity and organization.

-Defense. Polarization will only go so far. The working class must build the capacity to defend liberated areas from capitalist attack– by any means necessary. Defense organization should also be ‘prefigurative,’ in other words, democratic. The militant defense of spaces from attack will reinforce popular support for the struggle and prepare the workers forces for future battles.

-Offense. The power of the state must eventually be destroyed. We will not be able to reach certain areas through “generalization.” We will need to either invade or isolate these areas. It’s worth remembering that the capitalist class has no right to exist. Although armed struggle should not be a primary tactic in the struggle, we must build the military power of the working class to defend the revolution.


-Organization. We can’t wait for things to happen. We must organize locally now in order to be able to effectively support struggles as they intensify across the globe. This means building up democratic union organization in the workplace, and solidarity organization in neighborhoods as well. This will help build a revolutionary social bloc.

-the Revolutionary Social Bloc. Through organization, we need to build a social majority that is opposed to capitalism in its concrete manifestations of cutbacks and wage slavery, as well as its domination as a social form. We must polarize society against corporations specifically, and capitalism in general.

-Globalism. We must link all struggles as widely as possible geographically. Currently, there are very weak links between the Middle East, China, and the “West.” This is unfortunate, since China and the Middle East are currently central to capitalist globalization. It would make sense to make a concerted effort to build ties to workers organizations in those regions.

-Subversion. Radicals should consider careers in the military and law enforcement. We need to undermine the repressive apparatus as much as possible, and if possible, bring it to the side of the workers.

-Armed Struggle. This is a failure as a revolutionary strategy, but may have its place as a tactic of defense and offense. It would make sense to start building up armed workers organizations right now.

These are some ideas that have crossed my mind as I have watched Greece burn. The pace of change will probably quicken again over the next year. This is our time. Let’s not waste it.

Tree vs. Rhizome, Revisited
December 3, 2008, 7:15 am
Filed under: Analysis, News | Tags: , , , ,

The question of what’s next for Obama’s support network just won’t go away. Here’s an article about it that came out today on NPR: “The Fate of Obama’s Net Roots Network.”

The story is that Barack Obama was elected on the back of the biggest wave of “participation” ever seen in a US electoral campaign. This was accomplished largely through mobilizing a constituency through the Internet and allowing local volunteer organizers a relatively high degree of autonomy. Supposedly, the campaign is a network organization, a “rhizome,” rather than a top-down “tree.”

If this is true, if the Obama campaign was in fact a “movement,” the answer to the “what next” question will not come from the President-Elect or his campaign strategy team, but from the network itself.

I doubt this will happen. It seems to me that the Obama campaign was not a qualitatively different way of doing politics- but a quantitatively different way of campaigning. The goal was the same: elect someone. The tactics were the same: phone calls, doorknocking, maybe some house parties, but the scale was different.

These quantitative changes are not without value. It shows that massive numbers of people are looking for solutions, trying new things. If Obama does not deliver the goods, at least some of the now-organized population will move on in search of qualitatively different approaches… and different targets, tactics, and strategies.

I hope that revolutionary anarchists are part of the dialogue when people realize that the change we need isn’t going to come from anyone other than ourselves.

David Graeber- “Hope in Common”
November 18, 2008, 7:36 am
Filed under: Analysis | Tags: , ,

So David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, has published an essay about the current moment of crisis in capitalism. You can read it here.

It’s an interesting piece. The main idea is that peoples’ imaginations have been impoverished by capitalism, leaving us unable to imagine a different kind of social order. Graeber is optimistic that the crisis will create an opening for new kinds of thinking, leading to the construction of planetary alternatives to capitalism.

Let’s hope he’s right.