The Internal Struggle: Battling Oppressive Tendencies in Radical Spaces

Devon Douglas-Bowers

The following is the transcript of a recent email interview I had with several admins of the Anarchist Memes Facebook page discussing racism, sexism, transphobia, and a host of other oppressive behaviors in radical spaces and how to battle those behaviors.

1. How has anarchist thought evolved over time to be more inclusive of marginalized social groups?

[E]: Anarchism is a socialist ideology which had its birth and early infancy (as an actual political movement) within the First Internationale, with the Bakunin/Marx split. Like in socialism more broadly, the question of privilege apart from class privilege has always been a problem in the anarchist movement, with the (white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied) leadership of many anarchist groups refusing to acknowledge other vectors of oppression than the oppression experienced through class struggle, the one avenue of oppression that they themselves feel.

Already early on, though, anarchism experienced some queer theory. Der Eigene (The Unique) was the first gay Journal in the world, published from 1896 to 1932 by Adolf Brand in Berlin. Likewise, influential anarchists like Emma Goldman were far “ahead of their time” in that field, so to say. The politics of marginalized social groups, such as queer liberation and PoC [People of Color] liberation, has always been something that fit perfectly with anarchism because anarchism is opposition to all forms of structural oppression. But, as noted, many anarchist organizations (being dominated in large parts by a white heterosexual proletariat) has had a hard time recognizing this inherent property of anarchism.

Over time, as marginalized groups have gained a voice and prominence due to their own struggle for these things, they have also gained a voice and prominence within the broad anarchist tradition. Something which they should have had from the start, if only all of the early anarchists were as self-consistent as some of them were.
2. Why do you think that some on the radical left tend to downplay or outright ignore problems such as sexism and racism? Would you say that it is a major reason why more marginalized groups don’t identify/don’t become involved with anarchism?

[JA]: I think it is typically, generally, privilege (and white-male anarchists) clouding the analytical and emotional lens of those downplaying/ignoring sexism and racism. Many if not most white western anarchists seem to come to anarchism through a processes of de-conditioning themselves from the values and perceptions imbued in to them from the dominant culture often it’s a process, an exponential shedding of negative, bigoted, privileged sensibilities and ideals, which is not to say downplaying racism, sexism or any other oppression is okay/excusable. I’m not suggesting it’s incumbent for anyone to have patience with those express or retain bigoted and insensitive views.

To the contrary, I think an environment openly hostile to privilege and bigotry is an effective way of teaching people that there is something very wrong with those sorts of views. And more importantly, I think hostility towards bigotry and privilege rightly creates an environment which preferences the feelings of the oppressed before those who would downplay or deny their oppression. A culture of disdain towards oppressive attitudes and conditions is integral to adjusting attitudes and perceptions in my opinion.

[OM]: One of the main factors in excluding marginalized groups, in my experience especially with German activists, is the massive amount of unchecked privilege. This is especially true for activists who have entered Anarchism not to institute any meaningful social change, but to be part of a scene they consider a cool and edgy place to be in, i.e. they are not into it to build a better society, but to raise their own social status. These people (usually of the white, cishet, male, able-bodied/minded variety) then tend to establish dominance within their groups by all means available, including loads of oppressive behavior, especially shouting down and talking over more marginalized voices. Here in Germany, they have managed to successfully appropriate the concept of privilege, which is now considered a strictly individual property and not a result of structural inequality (e.g., people talk endlessly about the white privilege of individuals, but refuse to acknowledge white supremacy). Some even believe that, if they talk about their privilege a lot and in scene-approved terms, they can unilaterally rid themselves of said privilege, which leads to results to white men shouting down (white) women who raise topics like misogyny with shouts of “Check your white privilege” (white privilege can be interchanged with every other privilege here that is not male privilege).

Another major issue here is in my experience sub-culturalism. The confinement of Anarchism to a very narrow subculture is a major contributor to Anarchism’s current state as a white boys club. To participate in most German Anarchist groups, one has to strictly adhere to a host of unwritten rules and to display very specific cultural tastes in the areas of music, clothing, language, leisurely activities and so on. These cultural tastes are often considered more important than a person’s political affiliations.

Many of these rules actively exclude marginalized people. For example, everyone who owns a smartphone gets a lot of hate from local Anarchists for “supporting capitalism and consumerism” despite these devices being highly assistive for disabled people (I as an autistic person rely on my smartphone a lot to navigate everyday life, so I get a lot of ableism hurled at me here). Another example would be hostility towards poor/working class people. Since current Anarchist groups in my area are mainly made up of white men from wealthy backgrounds (the stereotypical trust fund kids), antagonism towards people who rely in wage labor (who, in general, tend to be more marginalized than the trust fund kids) for their survival definitely happens. Common critiques of “consumerism” actually go in a similar direction, basically preaching a very protestant-like asceticism and scolding women and working class people for acquiring things that make their lives easier and/or more pleasant (for example TV sets, washing machines, and so on).

A third issue I identify here is an attitude of “we exclude no one,” which leads to Anarchist groups actively accepting the presence of racists, sexists and ableists because excluding them would be “authoritarian,” while failing to acknowledge that accepting these people automatically excludes PoC, women, queer folx, disabled people and so on.
3. Do you think that this problem between anarchists who engage in oppressive behavior and those who do their best not to/acknowledge their own privilege; create a major rift in the anarchist movement? That is creates a sort of purity test?

[JA]: Well, I think this is an issue for socialism broadly – right-wing political philosophies don’t have to grapple with people actively not acknowledging their privilege because (and to the degree that) they’re ideologies built on privilege.

I think the percentage of abusive, privileged, bigoted people within the ranks of anarchists/marxists/et al are quite low – but that their awful behavior casts a wide shadow. I don’t believe there is much disagreement on the importance of safeguarding against and identifying abusers/bigots in our midsts. I think most of the left today, is quite cognizant of the fact that we have to be diligent about allowing patriarchy, white supremacy, and other vectors of oppression to permeate and distort our organizations, praxis, etc.

[OM]: I largely agree with fellow admin [JA] here, but I would like to add that purity tests are already a thing in Anarchist contexts, usually not referring to privilege though (but more to aforementioned cultural tastes and socioeconomic status), and mostly conducted by people with a lot of unchecked privilege.
4. What have been some of the problems that you have encountered when bringing up race, sexism, or other oppressive social structures on the AM page?

[JA]: The biggest problems in raising topics concerning racism, sexism, etc (in my opinion) – are non-anarchists flooding the page with their bigoted nonsense. Concomitant with that, are the pacifist-police who ubiquitously argue that any ban or hostile attitude towards racists somehow violates the racist’s freedom-of-speech or some tenant of anarchism (which is ludicrous, on multiple levels, as we perpetually explain).

5. Why do you think so many anarchists seem to misunderstand anarchism, seemingly in order to continue oppressive behavior?

[JA]: I don’t believe the people who misunderstand anarchism, and think that it excuses their oppressive behavior, are actually anarchists. I think they’re half-wits who self-apply the label per their misconceptions and intellectual laziness. What they think anarchism is – is not what anarchism is.

Many, many people mistake anarchism for a kind of sociopathic anti-philosophy – a philosophy which eschews order or concern for anyone/anything but the self. Which is, of course, the opposite of what anarchism is.

[E]: From a very cynical power-relations point of view, it makes perfect sense that they are misunderstanding anarchism in order to continue oppressive behavior within self-described “anarchist” spaces. Many of these people don’t face the same oppression as members of other marginalized groups do, and as such this experience lies far from their own understanding of the world, which makes empathy with people in those situations extremely hard, especially when your own privilege depends on that relation of power.
6. How have racial tensions in the anarchist movement contributed to the rise of so-called nationalist anarchists? What exactly is a nationalist-anarchist?
[JA]: “National-anarchism” didn’t come out of anarchism – national anarchists misappropriated “anarchism” in the same way “anarcho-capitalists” have. In the same way American-capitalists misappropriated the term “libertarian” from the left etc. There’s really no connection between “national-anarchists” and anarchism, save the title, which they surreptitiously took as their own.
[E]: A nationalist-“anarchist” is either a crypto-fascist seeking to recruit through the use of quasi-anarchist slogans and aesthetics turned towards a fascist mindset (see the “autonome Nationalisten” [Autonomous Nationalists] in Germany for a good example of this, with the Far-Right subverting and using the symbols of the Far-Left), a nationalist who has misunderstood anarchism or a self-proclaimed “anarchist” who has misunderstood anarchism. In all cases, it’s an ideology that’s built on the sophism of “freedom of association” applying between ethnicities and “peoples.” It’s a sort of strange mix between völkisch nationalism in the old pre-Nazi conception and all the most surface and hollow thoughts of an early Mikhail Bakunin (who was more interested in pan-Slavism and Slavic nationalism than he would later be, spurning those ideas later in life).

Fascists have also co-opted anarchist thinkers in the past, with the “Cercle Proudhon” being an early Far-Right quasi-fascist organization, and the early Italian fascists had great respect for the syndicalism of Georges Sorel and the conception of political violence that Mikhail Bakunin put forth.
7. How do you think that people can make their own groups more inclusive of marginalized groups?

[JA]: I found all these questions originally – and still do – difficult to answer as a cis white male. I can’t speak for marginalized communities, and it feels inappropriate to pontificate on their behalf.

[E]: People have to speak up. They have to not accept or be silent in the face of the racist, sexist, transphobic or otherwise reactionary actions taken by their groups. Trying to go for a squeaky-clean image by further silencing the marginalized voices is not the way to go about it, when someone is being a racist asshole you have to confront it, not just ignore it. Otherwise, we’re not going to get all that far. In many ways, the reason that Anarchist Memes has evolved in the direction it has is because we refuse to be silent when self-proclaimed anarchists act just like the oppressors they claim they are fighting. Racism, sexism, transphobia, or any other kind of oppression should not be casually accepted in anarchist spaces, and it won’t be on Anarchist Memes.

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