“We have to start talking to them (workers), not about the general evils of the whole international proletariat, nor the general causes which gave birth to it, but their particular misfortunes, daily and privately. It’s necessary to speak to them about their profession and the conditions of their work, precisely in the locality in which they dwell; of the duration and the vast extent of their daily work, the inadequacy of their salary, the wickedness of their boss, the scarcity of their food and their inability to properly nurture and educate their family, and proposing to them the means to combat their misfortunes and to improve their position, there’s no need to talk too soon about general and revolutionary objectives. Firstly, it is only necessary to offer them objectives, the usefulness of which their natural common sense and everyday experience cannot ignore, nor repel. ” -Excerpt from the FARJ’s “Social Work & Insertion”
Joel Olson argues against two major tendencies in American anarchism, counter-institution building and militant street protests, and suggests building a movement against the racial order should be a priority.
This is a slightly revised version of a chapter from the new book Contemporary Anarchist Studies, edited by Randall Amster, Luis Fernandez, etc. (Routledge 2009). Joel Olson teaches political theory at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and has been around anarchist circles in the United States for many years.
Anarchism has always had a hard time dealing with race. In its classical era from the time of Proudhon in the 1840s to Goldman in the 1930s, it sought to inspire the working class to rise up against the church, the state, and capitalism. This focus on “god, government, and gold” was revolutionary, but it didn’t quite know how to confront the racial order in the United States. Most U.S. anarchist organizations and activists opposed racism in principle, but they tended to assume that it was a byproduct of class exploitation. That is, they thought that racism was a tool the bosses used to divide the working class, a tool that would disappear once capitalism was abolished. They appealed for racial unity against the bosses but they never analyzed white supremacy as a relatively autonomous form of power in its own right.
Unfortunately, contemporary anarchism (which dates roughly from Bookchin to Zerzan) has not done much better. It has expanded the classical era’s critique of class domination to a critique of hierarchy and all forms of oppression, including race. Yet with a few exceptions, the contemporary American anarchist scene still has not analyzed race as a form of power in its own right, or as a potential source of solidarity. As a consequence, anarchism remains a largely white ideology in the U.S.
Despite this troublesome tradition, I argue that anarchist theory has the intellectual resources to develop a powerful theory of racial oppression as well as strategies to fight it, but first it must confront two obstacles placed in front of it by the contemporary American anarchist scene. First, it must overcome an analysis of white supremacy that understands racism as but one “hierarchy” among others. Racial oppression is not simply one of many forms of domination; it has played a central role in the development of capitalism in the United States. As a result, struggles against racial oppression have a strategic centrality that other struggles lack.
Second, it must reject the current U.S. anarchist scene’s “infoshops or insurrection” approach to politics and instead focus on movement building. Organizing working class movements, which was so central to the classical anarchist tradition, has given way to creating “autonomous zones” like infoshops, art spaces, affinity groups, and collectives on the one hand, and glorifying protests, riots, and sabotage on the other. But in the infoshops and insurrection approaches, the vital work of building movements falls through the middle.
In a class society, politics is fundamentally a struggle for hegemony, or a struggle to define what Antonio Gramsci calls the “common sense” of a society. In the United States, white supremacy has been the central means of maintaining capitalism as “common sense.” Building mass movements against the racial order, then, is the way in which a new hegemony, an “anarchist common sense,” can be created. But in building that common sense, I argue that contemporary American anarchism should look less toward Europe and more toward the struggles of peoples of color in their own back yard for historical lessons and inspiration.
Hierarchy, hegemony, and white supremacy
The intellectual framework of most of contemporary American anarchism rests on a critique of hierarchy. Murray Bookchin, perhaps the most important theorist of the concept, defines hierarchy as “a complex system of command and obedience in which elites enjoy varying degrees of control over their subordinates” (Bookchin 1982, 4). Capitalism, organized religion, and the state are important forms of hierarchy, but the concept includes other relations of domination such as of “the young by the old, of women by men, of one ethnic group by another, of ‘masses’ by bureaucrats, … of countryside by town, and in a more subtle psychological sense, of body by mind, of spirit by a shallow instrumental rationality, and of nature by society and technology” (4). Hierarchy pervades our social relations and reaches into our psyche, thereby “percolating into virtually every realm of experience” (63). The critique of hierarchy, Bookchin argues, is more expansive and radical than the Marxist critique of capitalism or the classical anarchist critique of the state because it “poses the need to alter every thread of the social fabric, including the way we experience reality, before we can truly live in harmony with each other and with the natural world” (Bookchin 1986, 22-23).
This analysis of hierarchy broadened contemporary anarchism into a critique of all forms of oppression, including capitalism, the state, organized religion, patriarchy, heterosexism, anthropocentrism, racism, and more. The political task of contemporary anarchism, then, is to attack all forms of oppression, not just a “main” one like capitalism or the state, because without an attack on hierarchy itself, other forms of oppression will not necessarily wither away after the “main” one has been destroyed.1
This critique of what is sometimes called “class reductionism” is powerful, for while patriarchy is surely connected to capitalism, for example, it can hardly be reduced to it. Despite this advantage, however, the anarchist critique of all forms of oppression fails to distinguish among those forms of oppression that have been more significant than others to the structuring of U.S. society. In other words, the critique of hierarchy in general lacks the ability to explain how various forms of hierarchy are themselves hierarchically organized. It correctly insists that no one form of oppression is morally “worse” than another. But this does not mean that all forms of oppression play an equal role in shaping the social structure. The American state, for example, was not built on animal cruelty or child abuse, however pervasive and heinous these forms of domination are. Rather, as I will argue below, it was built on white supremacy, which has shaped nearly every other form of oppression in the United States, including class, gender, religion, and the state (and animal cruelty and child abuse). Understanding white supremacy should therefore be central to any American anarchist theory, and developing political programs to fight it should be a central component of anarchist strategy, even if racism is not morally “more evil” than another forms of oppression.
The critique of hierarchy, in other words, confuses a moral condemnation of all forms of oppression with a political and strategic analysis of how power functions in the United States. It resists the notion that in certain historical contexts, certain forms of hierarchy play a more central role in shaping society than do others. It assumes that because all forms of oppression are evil and interconnected that fighting any form of oppression will have the same revolutionary impact. For this reason, it assumes that there is no more need to fight racial discrimination than, say, vivisection, since both are equally evil and interconnected forms of domination.
But as the great theorist W.E.B. Du Bois shows in his classic Black Reconstruction, the primary reason for the failure of the development of a significant anti-capitalist movement in the United States is white supremacy. Rather than uniting with Black workers to overthrow the ruling class and build a new society, as classical anarchist and communist theory predicts, white workers throughout American history have chosen to side with capital. Through a tacit but nonetheless real agreement, the white working class ensures the continuous and relatively undisturbed accumulation of capital by policing the rest of the working class rather than uniting with it. In exchange, white workers receive racial privileges, largely paid for by capitalists and guaranteed by the democratic political system. Du Bois calls these privileges “the public and psychological wages” of whiteness:
“It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.” (Pp. 700-701)
At the time of the publication of Black Reconstruction in 1935, these “wages” included the right to vote, exclusive access to the best jobs, an expectation of higher wages and better benefits, the capacity to sit on juries, the right to enjoy public accommodations, and the right to consider oneself the equal of any other. Today they include, in part, the right to the lowest mortgage rates, the right to decent treatment by the police, the right to feel relatively immune from criminal prosecution, the right to assumes one’s success is due entirely to one’s own effort, the right to declare that institutionalized racial discrimination is over, and the right to be a full citizen in a liberal democratic state. These wages undermine class-consciousness among those who receive them because they create an interest in and expectation of favored treatment within the capitalist system rather than outside of it.
The racial order in the United States, then, is essentially a cross-class alliance between capital and one section of the working class. (I make this argument in detail in my book The Abolition of White Democracy). The group that makes up this alliance is defined as “white.” It acts like a club: its members enjoy certain privileges, so that the poorest, most wretched members share, in certain respects, a status higher than that of the most esteemed persons excluded from it (Ignatiev and Garvey 1996). Membership in the white “club” is dynamic and determined by existing membership. Richard Wright once said, “Negroes are Negroes because they are treated like Negroes” (Wright 1957, 148). Similarly, whites are whites because they are treated like whites. The treatment one receives in a racial order defines one’s race rather than the other way around: you are not privileged because you are white; you are white because you are privileged. Slaves and their descendants have typically been the antithesis of this club, but various other groups have occupied the subordinate position in the racial binary, including Native Americans, Latinos/as, Chinese Americans, and others. Some, such as Irish and Jewish immigrants, started out in the subordinate category but over time successfully became white (Ignatiev 1995, Brodkin 1999). Others, such as Mexican American elites in California in the nineteenth century, started out as white but lost their superior status and were thrown into the not-white group (Almaguer 1994).
This system of racial oppression has been central to the maintenance of capitalist hegemony in the United States. If, as Marx and Engels argue in The Communist Manifesto, capitalism tends to bring workers together by teaching them how to cooperate, and if this cooperation has revolutionary tendencies (“what the bourgeoisie produces, above all, are its own gravediggers”), then capitalists need to break up the very cooperation that their system of production creates. 2 Now, different societies have developed different ways of disrupting class solidarity, often by giving advantage to one set of workers over others. Perhaps in Turkey it’s through the subordination of the Kurds, perhaps in Saudi Arabia it’s through the subordination of women, perhaps in Bolivia it’s through the subordination of the indigenous population, perhaps in Western Europe it’s through social democracy. In the United States, it has been through the racial order. The wages of whiteness have undermined the solidarity that the working class otherwise develops daily in its activities. It has fundamentally shaped other hierarchies, such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion, refracting them through its prism. In so doing, it has contributed to making capitalism seem like “common sense,” even to many workers (particularly white ones) who stumble under its burdens.
The racial order, then, is not merely one form of hierarchy among others. It is a form of hierarchy that shapes and organizes the others in order to ensure capitalist accumulation. Morally, it is not more evil than other forms of domination, but politically it has played a more central role in organizing American society. Strategically speaking, then, one would think that it would be a central target of American anarchist analysis and strategy. Curiously, though, this has not been the case.
Between infoshops and insurrection
It is surprising how little thought the contemporary American anarchist scene has given to strategy. Broadly speaking, it upholds two loose models that it presents as strategies and repeats over and over with little self-reflection or criticism. I call these models infoshops and insurrection.
An infoshop is a space where people can learn about radical ideas, where radicals can meet other radicals, and where political work (such as meetings, public forums, fundraisers, etc.) can get done. In the infoshop strategy, infoshops and other “autonomous zones” model the free society. Building “free spaces” inspires others to spontaneously create their own, spreading “counterinstitutions” throughout society to the point where they become so numerous that they overwhelm the powers that be. The very creation of anarchist free spaces has revolutionary implications, their proponents argue, because it can lead to the “organic” (i.e. spontaneous, undirected, nonhierarchical) spreading of such spaces throughout society in a way that eventually challenges the state.
An insurrection is the armed uprising of the people. According to the insurrection strategy, anarchists acting in affinity groups or other small informal organizations can engage in actions that encourage spontaneous uprisings in various sectors of society. As localized insurrections grow and spread, they combine into a full-scale revolution that overthrows the state and capital and makes possible the creation of a free society.3
Infoshops serve very important functions and any movement needs such spaces. Likewise, insurrection is a focal event in any revolution, for it turns the patient organizing of the movement and the boiling anger of the people into an explosive confrontation with the state. The problem is when infoshops and insurrection get taken as revolutionary strategies in themselves rather than as part of a broader revolutionary movement. In the infoshops model, autonomous spaces become the movement rather than serving it. In the insurrection model, spontaneous upheaval replaces the movement by equating insurrection with revolution rather than seeing it as but one part of the revolutionary process. The infoshops and insurrection models, in other words, both misunderstand the process of social transformation. Radical change may be initiated by spontaneous revolts that are supported by subterranean free spaces, but these revolts are almost always the product of movement building.
Social movements are central to radical change. The classical anarchists understood this, for they were very concerned to build working class movements, such as Bakunin’s participation in the International Working Men’s Association, Berkman and Goldman’s support for striking workers, Lucy Parson’s work in the International Working People’s Association, and the Wobblies’ call for “One Big Union.” To be sure, they also built free spaces and engaged in “propaganda by the deed,” but these were not their sole or even dominant activities. They did them in order to build the anarchist movement, not as a substitute for movement building.
Yet surprisingly much of the contemporary anarchist scene has abandoned movement building. In fact, the infoshops and insurrection models both seem to be designed, in part, to avoid the slow, difficult, but absolutely necessary work of building mass movements. Indeed, anarchist publications like Green Anarchy are explicit about this, deriding movement building as inherently authoritarian.
A revolution is not an infoshop, or an insurrection, or creating a temporary autonomous zone, or engaging in sabotage; it cannot be so easy, so “organic,” so absent of political struggle. A revolution is an actual historical event whereby one class overthrows another and (in the anarchist ideal) thereby makes it possible to abolish all forms of oppression. Such revolutions are the product of mass movements: a large group of people organized in struggle against the state and/or other institutions of power to achieve their ends. When movements become powerful enough, when they sufficiently weaken elites, and when fortune is on their side, they lead to an insurrection, and then perhaps a revolution. Yet in much of the anarchist scene today, building free spaces and/or creating disorder are regarded as the movement itself rather than components of one. Neither the infoshops nor insurrection models build movements that can express the organized power of the working class. Thus, the necessary, difficult, slow, and inspiring process of building movements falls through the cracks between sabotage and the autonomous zone.
The strategy of building autonomous zones or engaging in direct action with small affinity groups that are divorced from social movements assumes that radicals can start the revolution. But revolutionaries don’t make revolutions. Millions of ordinary and oppressed people do. Anarchist theory and practice today provides little sense of how these people are going to be part of the process, other than to create their own “free spaces” or to spontaneously join the festivals of upheaval. Ironically, then, the infoshops and insurrection approaches lead many anarchists to take an elitist approach to politics, one in which anarchists “show the way” for the people to follow, never realizing that throughout history, revolutionaries (including anarchists) have always been trying to catch up to the people, not the other way around.
Movement building and the racial order
Which brings us back to the racial order. The abandonment of movement building by the bulk of the contemporary American anarchist scene has led it to ignore the most important and radical political tradition in the United States: the Black freedom movements against slavery, segregation, and other forms of racial oppression.
The intellectual tradition of American anarchism has always looked more toward Europe(and sometimes Mexico) than the United States. American anarchists know more about the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt rebellion, the Mexican Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, Paris 1968, the German Autonomen, and the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas than they do about the abolitionist movement, Reconstruction, the Sharecroppers Union, the civil rights movement, or the Black/Brown/Red power movements. It’s not that American anarchists and history are ignored—Haymarket, Berkman, Parsons, de Cleyre, Goldman, Bookchin, and Zerzan all have their place in the anarchist pantheon—but these persons and events are curiously detached from an understanding of the social conditions that produced them, especially the racial order that has dominated U.S. history. (One consequence of this European focus, I suspect, is that it has contributed to the predominantly white demographic of the contemporary anarchist scene.)
The ignorance of Black freedom movements is so profound that even anarchistic tendencies within them get ignored. Nat Turner led a slave uprising in 1831 that killed over fifty whites and struck terror throughout the South; it should clearly count as one of the most important insurrections in American history. Historians often describe William Lloyd Garrison, a leader of the abolitionist movement, as a “Christian Anarchist” (e.g. Perry 1973), yet he is almost never included in anarchist-produced histories. The Black-led Reconstruction government in South Carolina from 1868-1874, which Du Bois dubbed the “South Carolina Commune,” did far more toward building socialism than the Paris Commune in 1871 ever did. Ella Baker’s anti-authoritarian critique of Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged young civil rights workers to create their own autonomous and directly democratic organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), arguably the most important direct action civil rights group. Further, the racial consciousness produced by these struggles has often been broader, radical, and international than the consciousness produced by other U.S. struggles, even if it describes itself as “nationalist” (See Robin Kelley’s great book Freedom Dreams for more on this). Yet these persons and events curiously form no part of the anarchist scene’s historical tradition.4
In sum, the Black freedom struggles have been the most revolutionary tradition in American history yet the anarchist scene is all but unaware of it. I suggest that there is more to learn about anarchism in the U.S. from Harriet Tubman, Abby Kelley, Nate Shaw, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Forman, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur than from Proudhoun, Kropotkin, Bakunin, Berkman or Goldman. There is more to learn from abolitionism than Haymarket, more from Reconstruction than the Spanish Civil War, more from the current social conditions of Black America than the global South. To see this, however, requires modifying the critique of hierarchy so that it can explain how forms of domination are themselves organized. It requires abandoning the infoshops and insurrection models for a commitment to building movements. It requires looking to Mississippi and New Orleans more than Russia or Paris.
This is not to say that American anarchism has been completely silent on race. The anarchist critique of white supremacy began in the 1980s and ‘90s, with the work of Black anarchists such as Kuwasi Balagoon and Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, the journal Race Traitor (which was sympathetic to the anarchist scene and did much to develop it intellectually regarding race), and anarchist organizations such as Love and Rage, Black Autonomy, Anarchist People of Color, and the anarchist-influenced Bring the Ruckus. Not coincidentally, these organizations also tend or tended to emphasize movement building rather than infoshops or insurrection. It is this tradition that influences my analysis here. But it is hardly a dominant perspective in the anarchist scene today.
After the Berlin Wall
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many anarchists were confident that anarchism would fill the void left by state communism and once again become the dominant ideological challenge to liberalism like it was before the Russian Revolution. This confidence, even exuberance, was on display throughout the U.S. anarchist scene in publications such as Anarchy, Fifth Estate, and Profane Existence; in the creation of new organizations such as the Network of Anarchist Collectives; and in the burst of anarchist infoshops opening up in Chicago, Minneapolis, San Francisco, D.C., New York, and elsewhere.
It was an exciting time. Yet anarchism never filled the void. It never captured the hearts and minds of ordinary people. A similar optimism followed the uprising in Seattle in 1999. Anarchists again confidently predicted the emergence of a new, powerful movement. Yet once again, it didn’t happen. Today anarchism in the U.S. is in about the same place it was in 1989: a static ideology and a loose scene of largely white twenty-somethings, kept together by occasional gatherings, short-lived collectives, the underground music scene, and a handful of magazines and websites.
What went wrong in 1989 and 1999? Why hasn’t anarchism filled the void left by the collapse of communism? Why hasn’t anarchism grown as a movement and a philosophy? Most of the answer, no doubt, lies in the fact that anarchists grossly underestimated the power of capitalism and liberalism. All socialist ideologies lost popularity with the fall of the Soviet Union, since there no longer seemed to be a viable, “actually existing” alternative to capitalism. Capitalism and liberalism appeared invincible and the world system seemed to be at “the end of history.” September 11, 2001, brought a new antagonist to global capital — religious fundamentalism — but it hardly represents a libertarian alternative. World events, in other words, smothered libertarian socialism between neoliberalism and fundamentalism.
But part of the problem, I have suggested, lies with anarchism itself. The failure to develop a theory of U.S. history that recognizes the centrality of racial oppression, combined with a related failure to concentrate on building mass movements, has contributed to anarchism’s continued marginalization.
But what if this was to change? What if American anarchists went from building infoshops and plotting insurrections to building movements, particularly movements against the racial order? (They could still build free spaces and encourage insurrection, of course, but these efforts would be part of a broader strategy rather than strategies in themselves.) What if anarchists, instead of concentrating on creating “autonomous zones” on the U.S.-Mexico border, as some have tried to do, worked to build movements in resistance to anti-immigrant laws?
What if anarchists, instead of planning (largely ineffective) clandestine direct actions with small affinity groups, worked to build movements against the police, who are at the forefront of maintaining the color line? What if anarchists, in addition to supporting jailed comrades, worked with family members of incarcerated people to organize against prisons? What if anarchists stopped settling for autonomous zones and furtive direct actions and focused on undermining the cross-class alliance and on changing the “common sense” of this society?
The scene might just build a movement.
Almaguer, T. (1994) Racial Fault Lines: the historical origins of white supremacy in California, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bookchin, M. (1982) The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, Palo Alto: Cheshire.
——— (1986) The Modern Crisis, Philadelphia: New Society.
Brodkin, K. (1999) How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. (1992) Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880, New York: Atheneum.
Forman, J. (1985) The Making of Black Revolutionaries, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, New York: International.
Ignatiev, N. (1995) How the Irish Became White, New York: Routledge.
Ignatiev, N. and J. Garvey (1996) Race Traitor, New York: Routledge.
Lowndes, Joe (1995) ‘The life of an anarchist labor organizer’, Free Society 2 (4). Available HTTP: < http://flag.blackened.net/liberty/parsonsl-bio.html>(accessed May 12, 2008).
Kelley, R. (2002) Freedom Dreams: the Black radical tradition, Boston: Beacon.
Olson, J. (2004) The Abolition of White Democracy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Perry, L. (1973) Radical Abolitionism: anarchy and the government of God in antislavery thought, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Roediger, D. (1986) ‘Strange legacies: the Black International and Black America’, in Roediger, D. and F. Rosemont (eds.), Haymarket Scrapbook,
Thomas, P. (1980) Karl Marx and the Anarchists, London: Routledge.
Wright, R. (1957) White Man, Listen! Garden City: Doubleday.
“We shall carry out all possible reforms in the spirit in which an army advances ever forwards by snatching the enemy-occupied territory in its path.” – Errico Malatesta[i]
As anarchist communists, we are against reformism. However, we are for reforms. We believe that fundamentally the entire system of capitalism, the state and all systems of hierarchy, domination, oppression and exploitation of humans over humans must be abolished and replaced with a direct democracy, egalitarian social relations and a classless economy that bases contribution according to ability and distribution according to need. However, such a social revolution can only occur through the power of the popular classes themselves from the bottom-up. In advancing towards such a social revolution and a free and equal society, we must build our power in preparation for this fundamental transformation of the world, building on struggles along the way. Ultimately our demands will be too threatening to the elite classes for them to bear; and their resistance to our drive for freedom will be too much for us to tolerate any longer.
We are against reformism. Reformism is the belief that the system as it currently exists can remain, but just needs to be slightly improved. For reformists, reform is the end goal. They are not against the system; they are against what they see as the “excesses” of the system. We don’t see the harm that the system does as excesses of the system, but expressions of the fundamental nature of the system. We see the reformists trying to hold down the lid of a boiling pot of water, or letting steam go from that boiling pot now and then; but they do not address the fundamental problem.
For example, the problems under capitalism aren’t because some capitalists are greedy or unfair- which they are; but rather that capitalism itself is the problem. Our global wealth has been historically created from the labor, resources and land from around the world. While the genius of human technology, innovation and hard work have been a factor; so slavery, exploitation, monopolization and theft have been a factor. But regardless of the degrees to which oppression or human genius played their respective roles in the creation of wealth, there can be no doubt that every advance is completely rooted in social relations and circumstance, as well as historical processes. Kropotkin describes this from one perspective in The Conquest of Bread.[ii] If this is so, why are some allowed to own and control the land, wealth and the means of production? Shouldn’t these be the common property of all as the inheritance of all that has been contributed by human history and the complex social processes that interacted to bring us to, and maintain the wealth that we have today? So how can we justify maintaining a system where some benefit more than others from the historically developed and socially maintained wealth? And how can we call only for reform of that system? It’d be like sitting at a family dinner where your brother claims to own the kitchen even though you’re cooking dinner with your parents. Your brother then receives all of the food produced and gives you and your parents each 10% of the food while he keeps 70% of it as the owner. A reformist response would be to say that if only each member of the family were able to get a 15% or 20% portion each (leaving your brother with a 55% or 40% share for being the “owner”), everyone would be alright and less hungry. Our response would be that it’s not about redistribution, the original distribution itself is flawed, and so is the system of ownership and work responsibility of the family. We must create a completely new system in which people share the common products of labor, which is carried out according to each person’s ability.
So if we’re against reformism, or reforms as the only goal, shouldn’t we be against reforms themselves? No. We want to make gains, and we are against the position that gains are pointless. Purism is the tendency of some to try to be so pure in their ideological position that they are unable to deal with the sloppiness of reality. It wrongly equates reforms with reformism itself. It rejects any position that doesn’t exactly mirror its ideological position. It leaves little room for dialogue and building with others, and instead is trapped in a position of constantly calling for the long-term vision without a clear proposal as to how to get there, or a clear way to build with people along the way. Purism often leads little room for activity besides ungrounded agitational writing and abstract theorizing from the sidelines. This “all or nothing” approach leaves little room for development towards a revolutionary situation. It ignores how the short and medium-term can connect to a long-term vision, and instead only focuses on the long term.
For Building Power and Advancing
So what is the solution for anarchist communists? We seek to build power towards a revolution. We feel that only the mass movements of the oppressed, exploited and dominated classes will be able to end oppression, exploitation and domination. As members of these classes, we seek to contribute to these movements. In the short-term, we seek to make gains in consciousness, capacity, skills, solidarity, and organization. From a revolutionary perspective this involves what the FARJ calls social work and social insertion[iii]. At first we are participating in the social movements- social work- often times without being able to have our views gain traction. Through consistent, principled and effective participation, we are able to build relationships with others; establish trust and respect; and dialogue with others about our views and positions. After a while, we hope to achieve some degree of social insertion: the influencing of social movements in the direction of being more directly democratic, more combative, more class-conscious, more anti-hierarchical, more infused with a long-term revolutionary consciousness, and so on.
In the short-term, we also want to win reforms. Losing in a reform struggle can demoralize participants around the possibility of struggle achieving gains; and winning in a reform struggle can demobilize participation and energy as people feel that they have succeed. But likewise, winning in reform struggles can build confidence, organization, capacity, solidarity, skills, and power; and losing in a reform struggle, can strengthen resolve and sharpen strategy. The point is that although we want reforms because they improve the lives of the oppressed and popular classes of which we are a part; even more fundamental to struggle– whether we win or lose- is developing the strength of the movement, which can come out of both wins and gains in reform struggles.
Some important elements within reform struggles are to:
1) fight the reforms directly using bottom-up, collective power against elite power instead of legalistic, electoral or other top-down “solutions”. This will build power rather than reinforcing savior complex dependencies.
2) always acknowledge before the end of the struggle the risks of losing- and being prepared to deal with this- as well as emphasizing the importance of struggle beyond the particular reform. Whether reforms are won or lost, the struggle continues until the unjust situation is changed.
3) always reflecting, always acknowledging areas to improve and always attempting to improve these things together. If we aren’t basing our struggle in praxis- the combination of action and reflection- then we’re either engaging in empty, ungrounded theory from the sidelines, or thoughtless, ineffective activism.
In the medium term, we want to build power. Of course we want to lessen exploitation, oppression, and domination where possible; but in the medium term- regardless of whether any given reform is won or lost- the struggle itself must serve to strengthen the social movements and class-based organizations so that they are able to grow and be more effective in future struggles. We want to create a dynamic in which bottom-up, directly democratic, anti-hierarchical, collective and anti-oppressive class-based power grows stronger and stronger over time. This power is the result of increased and shared consciousness of the causes of exploitation, domination and oppression and of the ways to fight and eventually end them. It’s the result of better functioning organizations; more solidarity; less internal oppression between members and a shared commitment of all to centrally challenge different manifestations of institutional, systemic and cultural oppression; more skill development and more equal distribution of skill development; greater commitment to struggle; a realization of more effective ways to struggle; and so on.
In the long-term, we want this popular bottom-up power to grow to the point where it can effectively end all systems of oppression, domination and exploitation, and replace them with directly democratic, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical and cooperative political, economic and social systems. We see this revolutionary situation coming about after decades of battles- wins and losses- in which the popular classes steadily increase their power and continue to demand more and more until the demands of the popular classes are too much to concede for the elite classes; and the power of the popular classes is enough to effectively carry-out revolution: the abolition of the state and all forms of government that dictate from above, and the replacement of this with directly democratic popular decision-making; the expropriation of the land and means of production from the capitalist class and its bottom-up socialized self-management by the workers and communities; the establishment of classless, egalitarian and cooperative global economies in which economic contribution is according to ability and economic distribution is according to need; the abolition of all systems of oppression and their replacement with social systems, cultural practices and relations that value and respect all people in their full humanity and individuality; the abolition of national systems that value one people over another and their replacement that gives dignity, self-determination and freedom to all human beings and values them equally as human beings across the globe; the end of environmental devastation and its replacement with practices of environmental sustainability and stewardship.
In short, we must reject the mentality- reformism- that sees any given reform- or even series of reforms- as the final objective in our struggles. We also must reject the mentality- purism- that rejects all reforms as reformism, and as counterproductive and useless. Instead, we must engage in struggles for reforms in the short-term. These reform struggles must be the means by which we build bottom-up and horizontal popular power- and the corresponding consciousness, skills, solidarity, capacity and organization- in the medium-term. We must not stop building this power, but continue grow, develop and advance- even if we falter or are defeated temporarily at times- towards the possibility of a revolutionary situation in which we destroy the fundamental causes of exploitation, domination and oppression themselves, not just their symptoms.
[i] Malatesta, Errico. The Anarchist Revolution: Polemical Articles 1924- 1931. Pg. 81
[ii] Kropotkin, Peter. The Conquest of Bread. Chapter 1: Our Riches: http://libcom.org/library/conquestofbread1906peterkropotkin1
When we, as anarchists or anti-fascists, go out into the streets, questions should arise: What are we doing here? What are our goals? What is the most appropriate or powerful way to achieve those goals? Our tactical choices should always be in service of our goals — they should never be goals in themselves. I fear that in the anti-fascist movement, the tactic of black bloc has become fetishized and that this fetishization has impeded the growth of our movement and struggle. That isn’t at all to say that black bloc doesn’t have a role, but it seems to be imperative that we reflect on our goals as a movement and constantly assess whether or not our tactical choices are moving us toward those goals or not. Does holding onto black bloc as an identity help or hurt us as a movement?
The position I hold, along with many of my First of May comrades, is that the goal of anti-fascist struggle is to organize and promote a united working class defense against the violence and proliferation of fascist attacks and ideology. This means our goal must be to attract the working class, with the entirety of its racial, gender, ethnic, and religious diversity included, to participate alongside us in a mass movement against fascism in the public sphere. As anarchists, our own goals go further in that we hope that such a mass movement could take on a revolutionary character against all power structures that oppress, over and beyond specific concerns of fascism. The fact that we, as anarchists, strongly believe in democracy and community self determination should also be recognized when considering our role in the streets. Clearly, if we are for a united working class defense and a truly democratic revolution and society, some of our movement’s biggest concerns should be the potential alienation of people we want to draw to our movement and our potentially self-imposed (though perhaps not conscious) role as a vanguard or political elite presence.
Unfortunately, often the presence of black bloc, particularly at mass public events (or while filling potholes https://itsgoingdown.org/portland-anarchists-fixing-potholes-city-streets/), achieves exactly what we want to avoid. While it is important to be militant, it is equally as important, for our goals, to be approachable and relatable. The contrast between showing up as a regular person whose stake in this resistance is just as legitimate as anyone else’s, no more and no less, and showing up as some antifa superhero whose costume portrays a particular claim on the movement is stark and could make all the difference in terms of how many people we attract and who we attract. If this is a public movement, and I believe it must be as per our goals, we need to be public people. Just like we are in our everyday life. Additionally, failure in addressing this makes claims of “outside agitation” all the more believable — if we don’t look like part of the community, how can anyone think otherwise? Although the narrative of “outside agitation” may not be fair, popular narratives are something we must strategically contend with.
Furthermore, we need to understand that although black bloc has a rich and inspiring history, whether rightly or wrongly its history can also hold connotations of whiteness to many communities of color who don’t have publicly well known history of participating in it. As someone who comes out of the Muslim community, I can tell you right now that this had been my initial impression — black bloc: that’s what those adventurous white boys do. It wasn’t just the aesthetic that somewhat took the seriousness out of it, but it was also the perceived lack of participation of people of color. I, being someone who was not well versed in the history of the tactic, understood black bloc through what the pop-cultural narrative provided me, and we cannot assume that this isn’t the case for many people that we hope to appeal to as anarchists or anti-fascists. Moreover, it certainly does not help that many people’s personal encounters with black bloc has indeed been an encounter with something mainly white and often adventurous.
We should not assume or expect that people will have context for black bloc. The actions around the 4th precinct in Minneapolis in 2015 illustrated this point — as soon after a masked white supremacist shot at Black Lives Matters protesters, well-intentioned anarchists had arrived masked up. This caused confusion among the community and thus required unnecessary intervention. The problem is that the whole thing is either alien to a lot of people or brings up negative connotations. These problems can be addressed by cultivating relationships, having community ties, and having people see the use of black bloc when it makes sense over time. That means engagement — and engagement requires some degree of approachability from the start.
As mentioned earlier, there is something vanguardist about having a uniform group of unapproachable people often trying to impose a direction (often mistaken for agitation) at a mass event. This is undemocratic and if we are take pre-figurative politics seriously, we must combat this tendency. A particularly egregious case of this behavior took place in Richardson, Texas recently (http://cw33.com/2017/03/18/mosque-protest-and-counter-protest-in-richardson-upstaged-by-third-group/) at a mosque defense, where the antifa black bloc presence actively antagonized the very community they claimed to be standing alongside in defense. In the end, the Muslim organizers met with the very bigots who were targeting the mosque — one would speculate because both groups were so opposed to the antifa presence. Of course, the fact that those organizers were liberal has something to do with that meeting, and furthermore I am not saying that anarchists should subordinate themselves to liberal leadership and demands as a rule. However, when you’ve driven the very community under attack to meet with their attackers because that seems more appropriate than engaging with you, as an anti-fascist, then something obviously went horribly wrong. An important point to make, I think, is that understanding the setting and context you are engaged in and recognizing all the language-games and particulars that go into that is what should determine the shape of your presence, and that there should be no adherence to general tactical rules in this regard. Feel the situation out, and focus on what one needs to do to achieve the goal of a united working class movement. If black bloc is alienating the Muslim community, then it is exactly the wrong tactic for that setting.
There are some who may feel that I am saying to compromise on our politics or our militancy, but I absolutely do not feel that is the case. Alienating the people who may want to stand with us compromises our movement as a whole. Do we truly expect on-the-spot conversions to anarchism at mass demonstrations (and do we expect black bloc helps achieve that)? Or do we recognize that mutual political education is something that takes time, effort, and most of all, the development of real relations? How can these relations develop if we are unapproachable and antagonistic to the public from the start? If black bloc is to be effective in our historical context (which is far different from the context in which developed), it must function as part of the mass working class resistance movement and not as an isolated wing of adventurists.
Lastly, I do not want to disregard the security concerns that lead many to mask up. I am certainly afraid of being followed or doxx’d by fascists or being recognized by the state. I do not take such concern lightly, but I believe there must be a balance, particularly in light of the goal of an open, public movement. I believe that public events are places in which our movement has an opportunity to grow, and it is important that we are approachable if possible. If one feels that there is possibility of danger or is going to engage in an action that requires anonymity (and many actions do), then it’s appropriate to carry a mask and use it when the situation deems it necessary. Everybody will judge a situation differently, and everybody has different security concerns, and all of that is fair. However, security should not be our only concern — we need to remember that we have a political purpose, and that although revolution is risky, it is necessary and we should make our decisions in light of that.