“Our future is unwritten.”
These old libertarian socialist maxims have become so cliché that they can be an indicative street sign indicating for you to take a detour around whatever post-left jargon that comes next, but we can try to delve a little deeper. Many people dove into the Occupy Movement with the kind of fervor that can only happen when your politics are validated in an incredibly clear and material way. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent housing crisis in 2010, was felt so personally amongst an entire range of people that the waves of deregulated capitalism are splashing hard enough to stop us from finding our heads above water. We were treated to a second collapse when our response, the diversified and shockingly quick faces of Occupy, also crumbled in a pretty predictable fashion. A movement built on anarchist principles and vision fell apart for lack of cohesive structure, as well as a media betrayal and enough liberal guilt to go around. In the shadow of that fallen statue many are looking forward to create an anarchist structure with a little more staying power, which means looking backwards and trying to find a series of patterns that illustrate what success can look like.
What this means is a much more intentional project, what Mark Bray calls a more “big A” anarchism as opposed to the “small a” variety that often permeates radical circles(1). The ideas of solidarity, mutual aid, and direct action have been solidified in the activist mindset and we want to make a step forward with an ideological organization that allows us to both build our own internal world view as well as push these radical ideas in the movements around us. For those inclined towards this “big A” anarchism, the trajectory is usually towards both American and European Platformism and the Latin and South American Especifismo, who bring a generally similar perspective on what it means to have a consistent anarchist organization that can create a revolutionary impulse in working class movements. This often means a degree of agreement about ideas and strategy, working with movements that are not exclusively anarchist, and having an organization of their own. This is not, as we know, the only approach that can be taken, and still bears a barrage of criticism for using organizational elements that people often assume are Marxist in character.
What we actually have in front of us is both a new politic and a set of fresh ideas that are demanding to be considered if we are to stay relevant. The organizations that we are developing now may be inspired by the success of the past, but even if we look to them as a blueprint there is no way that we can expect for our functionality to be a carbon copy of theirs. Different circumstances, people, developing notions about late capitalism and power relationships, shifting struggles, and even just personal identities leave us without a clear picture of exactly what our organizations will become. Quite literally, our future has not been decided. No matter how accountable and organized, we could still devolve into disarray. Even if founded on direct action and direct democracy, we could still get hopelessly drawn into progressive reformism or let strong personalities make the primary decisions.
Instead, what we have is a bit of trial and error. We have to look at our particular situations, take lessons as they come, and find inspiration rather than schematics in the organizations of the past(or even the present).
These notes ahead are fragmented, as they should be. As we collectively build new ideological institutions we will learn bits and pieces at a time, not a grand theory that encompasses all. The anarchist canon fundamentally works differently than the Marxist. It does not discern all theory from one grand scripture and prophet, but instead derives theory from practice and builds from many voices to construct a constantly changing narrative. While Marx begins as a communist prophet outlining their “theory of history,” divergent paths take though the different “practical applications” of this thought through, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Debord, or anybody else whose name has become more important to their ideas. The libertarian tradition instead creates a shifting perspective where ideas are traded, enhanced and abandoned, and structured out of the lived experience.
If we were to create a modern manifesto, a declaration of the anarchist movement of today, it could not be written by one person in a document. It would be the collective ideas of the mass attempting to come together and construct something that can challenge capitalism and the state in this new context. It would be built as a patchwork quilt from the fragments of hard lessons, scraps of paper from old meetings, and loud arguments between friends. We would have to build a new manifesto that collects as much as we can to find something cohesive, yet is open to our own failure and diversity of ideas. We do not know what organization will ensure our success, and if we did we already would have seen our revolution. Instead, we have to hammer together the individual ideas and then step back to see if we have a shelter that is inhabitable, and to keep building until we find something that works.
Rochester Red & Black
The word about the possibility of creating an anarchist-specific organization had circulated in murmurs around the community for months, but nothing had been narrowed down.
The local anti-authoritarian community center was hosting the most recent assembly of the NorthEastern Anarchist Network, the organization that published the occasional newspaper The Nor’easter. Between general “meet and great” and educational workshops, discussions began coming together around one talk on South American Especifismo. Some people with Platformist leanings had been discussing the possibilities of an ideological organization and wanted to use this as a jumping-off point, while others were simply looking for an anarchist formation of any adjective. Together we met and fostered a series of discussions of exactly what we were looking for and where we could go from here.
There was an immediate clash as the presentation of Especifismo reeked of American Platformism, and rightfully so. Traditionally, I had preferred to jump into a Synthesist organization that was a little more broadly accepting to divergent viewpoints. The Synthesis itself presented what would become known as “anarchism without adjectives” as the unity of three distinct trends in anarchism at the time of its writing. In an attempt to reconcile the labor focuses of Anarcho-Syndicalism, the control of the community by the whole of the community in Anarcho-Communism, and the development of a fully realized individual in Individualist Anarchism, it rested on four points.
1. that these three currents – anarcho-syndicalism, libertarian communism and anarchist individualism, distinct currents but not contradictory – have nothing that makes them irreconcilable, nothing that puts them in opposition to each other, nothing that proclaims their incompatibility, nothing that can prevent them from living in harmony, or even coming together for joint propaganda and action;
2. that the existence of these three currents not only does not harm in any way or to any degree the total force of anarchism – a philosophical and social movement envisaged, and rightly so, in all its breadth, but can and logically must contribute to the overall strength of anarchism;
3. that each of these currents has its own place, its role, its mission within that broad, deep social movement that goes by the name of “anarchism”, whose goal is the establishment of a social environment that can assure the maximum well-being and freedom to each and every one;
4. that in these conditions, anarchism may be compared to what in chemistry is called a compound, that is to say a substance made up of a combination of various elements. (2)
Within this context the presentation of a complete anarchism was really the realization of how it affected three particular sectors, rather than the segmenting off as distinct ideological trends with barriers. Since many Libertarian Communists also considered themselves Syndicalists in their relationship to labor, it seemed as though a certain amount of “synthesis” was already at play. With the inclusion of Individualist Anarchist thought that was not in opposition to the founding communist principles, it seemed that this made up for an ideological framework that was specific enough to be distinct and broad enough to foster inclusivity.
When really discussing Especifismo, or Platformism in a different context, it was not that we were dealing with these three distinct elements, but instead very contradicting schools that still take on the name of anarchism. Most specifically, synthesis networks often show their diversity by combining this traditional left anarchism with Anarcho-Primitivism and the more fringe elements of the Insurrectionary Post-Left, which not only do not have any tactical connection to organizationalists, but also hold a fundamentally contradicting view about the systemic roots of oppression.
As we continued with our formation the discussion became less about the distinctions between Platformism and Synthesis, and more about where we had some degree of unity. The unity that we eventually developed was broad enough to hold a whole range of ideas that could be approximately called “social anarchism,” while also having the kind of structure and commonalities that drive the Platformist impulse. This, however, really only came from the development of a praxis that was unique to our particular viewpoints and allowed for divergence from the more traditional ways of interpreting anarchist political organization. If were to look back to failed documents like Nestor Makhno’s Platform, or even to many of the earlier federations, we would find that the old sectarian barriers were often too strict to allow the kind of variances we ended up with. We ended up creating a platform that respected a “synthesis” of different anarchist ideas up to the point we could agree on, while leaving out that which we commonly thought was not part of our anarchist tradition. A different group may have created that dividing line somewhere else, but as a wholly new formation we were able to create our own unique boundaries.
Especifismo, which is often called a more contemporary and adaptable form of Platformism, was often a great guide to look towards as we hammered down the details. We began by determining a group reading list and then going through it with brassy public meetings. From here a core organizing committee of interested people came together and began piecing together a Points of Unity and Constitution that reflected our own particular ideas, yet was framed with an eye towards the Especifist organizations like the Red Libertalia and the FARJ. While these gave us a sort of “paint by number” guide for how an organization could function, we picked our own colors. We diverged where we saw weaknesses, and often made changes where we saw conflicts with our particular circumstances and community.
This often invited conflicts that, in this context, were incredibly important in developing something that worked concretely for everyone and would remain consistent as new people joined. A serious split of opinion developed along decision making policy, with many people favoring the American anarchist favorite of consensus models. Instead, the people walking in with a clear tie to Especifismo wanted to continue their use of majoritarian voting, representing a clear break from the American anarchist status quo. Since so much of Especifismo, and traditional Platformism before it, was designed as a way of “remedying” the failures that anarchism has had in its attempts to be a revolutionary force, those who aligned with it on structural points were prepared to stand firmly with the position that we need to toss out the older anarchist baggage. Those on the consensus side saw consensus as being perfectly built for an organization with a significant degree of ideological unity, like the one we were forming. Consensus has often been argued to work best when the people using it have similar conceptions of the direction they want movements to go in and where members have a significant working relationship. What we ended up with was something that was less of a compromise, and more of a way of integrating the elements that both side found important. With a modified consensus we essentially committed to the process of attempting to develop consensus among group members, but still structurally sided with a majority vote since that was the “bottom line” decision making tool.
We also saw that we could move much further than many of these organizations had in the past by developing a Points of Unity that really tackled sectors with a critical perspective. Instead of replicating the very timid environmental position that you often see in libertarian communist organizations, we declared our organization as biocentric. Here we took a specific stance on environmental issues in that we see the earth as more than a place for” itemized resource extraction,” whether by the State and the ruling class or by a democratic assembly of the people. This is a clean break with many leftist organizations that, in an effort to avoid anti-civilizationist language, do not have a deeply critical view of the alienation modern capitalism draws between us and the natural world.
What we found was this was a point we could agree on, while more specifics about ecology had a great deal of divergence among us. This was true on many issues, and we noted that on some topics we disagreed so strongly that we could not say that we even had comparable points of view. This is where our Points of Unity became the strongest tool, as it only reflected the things we did have unity about. We did not force through a false unity on issues that we did not share, and instead the points we could not agree on were left completely out of the document and were not to be participated in as an organization. Animal rights, as an example, had conflicting perspectives across the new membership, and therefore it was just not something we could comfortably engage in as an organization. Instead, members could engage in those movements independent of the organization, but within Red and Black we only work on projects that we can develop a clean agreement on. This also presents its own form of consensus since the actual work only comes from the ability to agree on some issues, and we recognize that as complex individuals we are not going to have broad agreement on all social issues.
Just as with the development of our organization outside the strict confines of Especifismo or the forced “inclusion” of pure Synthesis, we ended up developing something unique that still drew inspiration from these sources. When we do not have answers we have the ability to look towards anarchist organizations that have been more successful and draw what features we think could work best in our own particular context. Our organization was never quite a Synthesis organization, but those who would fit best in those types of organization would also feel perfectly comfortable in the one we had built.
Part of what can make an ideological organization successful is to not always be forced to reinvent the wheel. Understanding the multiple fronts that struggle is engagement in, a serious look around to see what is actually becoming successful in your area. To have the ability to really see the variety of organizing options the communities have to be discussed within an intersectional framework. As a concept coming out of feminist circles, intersectionality intends to look at various forms of oppression and hierarchal constructions as intersecting rather than fighting for primacy. A feminist philosophy professor once explained to me that the perfect society is like a river flowing freely, and oppression is a complex dam that stops its progress. Different theories of oppression hold that different specific pieces of the dam are integral to its existence, and therefore removing that individual piece forces the dam to collapse. This essentially means that different schools of feminist thought have a different perspective on what the underlying systemic issue is, and therefore what needs to be challenged as primary to watch the dam collapse, so to speak. Intersectionality blasts through this logic by noting that all different forms of oppressive forces play on each other and do not exist independently. While women experience sexism on a daily basis, their actual experience may also depend on their ethnic background and class experience. As we build a framework that is inclusive, we begin to see how different hierarchal presentations play on each other as white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and a range of other positions intersect continuously as essential parts of both capitalism and the protective state. In times past we have often seen that as new theories emerged to deal with changing circumstances, different oppressions have been seen as primary. With an intersectional framework we can continue to adapt as we grow, looking at how hierarchies are formed and how they alienate us both as individuals and collectively.
These structured inequalities and hierarchies inform and support one another. For example, the labor of women in child-bearing and rearing provides new bodies for the larger social factory to allow capitalism to continue. White supremacy and racism allow capitalists control over a segment of the labor market that can serve as stocks of cheap labor. Compulsory heterosexuality allows the policing of the patriarchal family form, strengthening patriarchy and male dominance. And all structured forms of inequality add to the nihilistic belief that institutionalized hierarchy is inevitable and that liberatory movements are based on utopian dreams. Proponents of intersectionality, then, argue that all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another. (3, Refusing to Wait)
As an anarchist organization, and a basic “leftist formation,” there has been a tradition to focus on the primacy of certain types of oppression at the cost of a broader intersectional analysis. Many in new anarchist regroupment processes have looked to the success of organizations like Bring the Ruckus for how they can maintain a cadre format. Their ideas, often based around some of the writings of founding member Joel Olson, put race as primary because of its position in the develop of the American state and capitalism through slavery and anti-immigration boundary development(citation). The accusation has also been made, sometimes fairly, of an almost “class reductionist” perspective in many Anarchist Communist and Syndicalist organizations, often times hiding it under phrases like “class compositionalism.” This often comes because of the starkly different nature of class from other forms of oppression, mainly that we actual do want to maintain a form of “classism” in that we want to expropriate the ruling class.
These are important trends to counteract if we are going to remain relevant to social movements in the 21st century, as well as if we are to simply be serious about confronting oppression as it is actually experienced by people. It may be possible to maintain sexist gender roles while eliminating capitalism, though it would not be a truly “classless” society. Instead we need to enter into these struggles by targeting all institutions of hierarchal oppression on their own terms, while continuing a class analysis within them as well. We can begin to target all manifestation of racism, including that which shows up in left-wing and activist communities, while also entering into the discussion about how capitalism perpetuates these social forces as they are needed for it to survive. Intersectionality can mark our break from the past, where organizations are defined by what type of oppression we see as primary. Not only are we anti-capitalists, but we are also feminists looking to smash patriarchy, anti-racists attempting to counter manifestations of White Supremacy and fascism, radical queers looking for liberation, and, of course, comrades of the working class building a new future. These forces intersect as our own identities are made up of complex and connected forces, but we are all common in our position as working people. As Abbey Volcano and Jen Rogue put it, we are not only our identities formed from our oppressions, but we are also political subjects.
We are not just bodies that exist in assigned identities such as race, class, gender, ability, and the rest of the usual laundry list. We are also political subjects in a society ruled by politicians, judges, police, and bureaucrats of all manner. An intersectional analysis that accounts for the social flesh might be extended by anarchists, then, for insurrectionary ends, as our misery is embedded within institutions like capitalism and the state that produce, and are (re)produced, by the web of identities used to arrange humanity into neat groupings of oppressors and oppressed. (4)
In this we still stand against class-collaboration, which means we do not see these struggles as having a final success if they depend on a unity between the rich and the rest. The ruling class can only exist if the other divisions in society are maintained, so we cannot expect to counter individual forms of oppression by letting the wealthy take the lead.
In this way we actually take a broad form of inspiration from past anarchist and libertarian communist organizations since we take on the best elements of them, while trying to abandon the baggage that made them relics of history. The Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation is one of these, as they worked to develop a critique of late capitalism and a queer analysis that was a break from the organizations of the past. Their analysis was not complete as all critiques of oppression are always changing and growing, so we need to pick up the mantle and understand that our work is never finished and our intersectionality should only expand. This openness can define a theoretical framework that will allow our organizations to really challenge an adversary that shits in its response to our social forces.
So many elements of an anarchist specific organization are about working on balancing acts. Balancing autonomy of individuals and locals, and unity amongst the broader organization. Balancing collective accountability and individualized direct action. When looking at how the membership is specifically managed, there is a strong friction between being inclusive and having a platform and format that will exclude some people’s ideological position. Unlike the loosest networks, and ideological anarchist organization will, by its very definition, exclude some people. This usually excludes people with an American libertarian strain because of its explicitly anti-capitalism, a point that most involved will not take issue with. Additionally, a class-struggle oriented formation will likely not be as open to hard primitivism since they see the role of organizing, formation, and revolution as fundamentally opposed. Tactically, people involved will likely see the role of official organizations and structured organizing in mass movements as important, so the more anti-organizational insurrectionary elements will likewise feel excluded. Many people see that an anarchist position should be to avoid exclusion at any possible point, but this really misses the key principles of voluntary association. The project that we are working on exists along specific lines, and if people do not share the same ideological orientation it is not advantageous for either of them to be working in the same ideological organization. This does not mean they cannot work together in a comradely way in larger projects, but that an organization has a specific orientation and to broaden it too much compromises what is gained by having a grouping along a common understanding of where oppression comes from and how best to target and destroy it.
With that in mind, we again need to ensure that this is a balancing act. We do not need to simply prescribe what anarchism is, but develop an organization that truly reflects the membership. This means that its formation may have a specific description of ideological positions, but these could be changed as the membership changes. An organization will become stale and irrelevant if it does not adapt to new members, but there should still be an ideological core that drives the purpose of the organization. This ends up being less in how the structure of the organization is managed and instead about how the individuals approach their own radicalism and then, subsequently, how that radicalism forms their organization. If there is rigidity about ideology that takes over then the organization will lose the ability to grow, even if they began with the notion that it should continue to evolve.
This is not a moral distinction or one that is simply meant to follow “anarchist principles,” but instead a purely functional one. The history of leftist formations is the history of stale ideological structures that outlive their relevancy. This is especially seen throughout the various Trotskyist circles that are still splitting and reforming along miniscule differences in interpretations of historical events and texts. Anarchism has avoided this kind of ideological baggage by constantly evolving through it use of action as an ideological precursor, but this flexibility has also allowed it to have little permanence in organizations. Instead, we want to take the transformative qualities of anrarchism while giving it a structure that allows people to grow and really enter social movements as a revolutionary agent.
Building a New World in the Shell of the Old
Again, and old maxim said so often it betrays the intention to those who hear it.
Anarchism does attempt to differentiate itself as a theory built in action, a future built from struggle. Here we create organizational resistance to capitalism, a way of smashing through in a particular sector and challenging the basic assumption. What anarchism offers, that other forms of resistance whether liberal or revolutionary Marxist-Leninist, is a focus on direct action as a force for change. There are a few reasons for this, but beyond being much more effective in reaching intermediate goals, it bridges the world we want to see with the tactics we use today. Direct action shows us a world as it could be, without the perpetual boredom and mediation by the state. Instead, it shows that we can create a world where direct participation is the privilege of everyone, and we do not have to work strictly through a representational framework. It shows us we can get our hands dirty. This creates a strong sense of empowerment, as if we briefly cracked through the mirage of time and saw a world where our passivity and apathy could be eradicated. Matt Black writing for the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation notes that dual power is exactly what can separate the anarchist organization from other factions.
What distinguishes us from other political forces, is in our commitment to building the new society now. This is central for two reasons. It (hopefully) allows us to see our work as part of the revolution instead of being prior to it; at the same time, the process of trying to build something new is what will really be the undoing of the old. (5)
Here we plant just a few seeds of the world to become, but as we continue to grow in the power of the social movement, we shouldn’t abandon these principles as their expansion will only further empower the idea that this world can be different.
The point here is to try to find ways of developing politics that maintains direct democracy and displays functionality in our prefigurative ideas. This means meeting in general assemblies, having open forums for ideas, debating issues regularly, and creating structures for networks and federations that we imagine have the same trajectory as our answers for what could replace the functions of the state and corporations. Often times we see growth and success in particular campaigns as our primary goal, but here we are not actually seeing our larger vision realized unless it comes in a format that we hope will be replicated in a mass way later on. This can be a maddening proposition since we have not seen those ideas have much success in our current world, but we need to keep in mind that the ideas about organization and power that are dominant in society are, themselves, not working either. This is just as much about experimentation as it is about staying power, and we do not have a blueprint for how to create a world completely free of hierarchies. We are building it (somewhat) new every time and, like with all parts of this process, we are taking bits and pieces from what is around us.
As we make choices for this organization we need to remember the importance of combating internal structures of coercive or unaccountable power, as people carry these learned characteristics into groups. Likewise, we have to look at the composition of our organizations as white, educated young men often make up the majority of anarchist organizing, often because of the privileges that allow them to participate in a more involved way. If we are to use our organizations as a model for the future it cannot just be written by privileged populations, and it cannot be the result of charismatic leadership. It needs to be because we have built a model that reflects these ideas at its core, and attempt to maintain them. Look at how your group is starting to function, how to maintain face-to-face communication, and how to create an open internal culture that can maintain working functions even in the face of common disagreements. Create strong accountability processes that can deal with abusive members, drug problems, bigoted behaviors, and anger between members, all without resorting just to the common state solutions for these problems.
Look at other organizations you do not envy and find the elements that make them diverge from the one you are building. An obvious characteristic of the many Marxist organizations are their centralism, and easy point to observe and void by looking towards a balance of autonomy and unity through federalism. Look at their Central Committees and how a lack of equality of opinion and democracy robs the individuals in their organizations of their sense of power. See their reliance on old tactics and strategy, without the ability to see a changing world for what it is. If we are going to build an anarchist society, we have to start with a truly anarchist organizational model.
Adaptation is the key to creating an organization that grows along with the struggles it engages with, as well as the changes that late capitalism endures. You begin with a relatively clear vision of the organization you want to see. It addresses the struggles that are relevant to its membership, it reflects anarchist ideas in structure and inner workings, it addresses internal dynamics consciously, and it has an ideological orientation built on a systemic critique. As a part of this vision you should have the need for it to remain adaptive, but what does that mean?
This is difficult to talk about in a broad context because adaptation is specific to the specific dynamics. This means that the actual issues that the group are addressing, its projects, its membership dynamics, its internal problems, and its public character all play into an assessment of how adaptation should and can occur. Is your organization predominately made of people with gender or racial privilege? Are women in the organization being shut out by the men during meetings and in leadership positions? Are people focusing on recruiting at the cost of organizing, or using organizations as “front groups” for a vanguardist strategy? All of these things can occur even if your best intention is to counter them, so it takes the ability to honestly look at your situations. What is really happening in your organization?
There are very pragmatic ways to create this conscious self-assessment. If you have periodic “retreats” where you focus both on strategy and internal dynamics, people can try to raise criticisms in a safe space. There needs to be a commitment ahead of time to really listening and considering the feedback on comrades, which can be really difficult when you are desperate to make a project work. Projects that have longevity have the ability to confront themselves regularly and deal with toxic dynamics that form. This process is crucial to actually have the ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Being open to adaptation can mean a lot of things structurally, all of which can be thought of by looking at examples previous organizations have thought of and creatively proposing ideas. This really means a critical commitment to trial and error, and being willing to fail without feeling like a failure. Would it make sense to add a caucus structure? Inside Rochester Red & Black they began a Women, Trans, Femme(WTF) Caucus, trying to bring together a group that could address oppressive dynamics within the group, and do events and projects of their own that target issues of rape culture, patriarchy, and heteronormity. This has become a real flowing project within the organization and has turned it into a majority female organization that has been more welcoming to transgender people who have not had a welcoming organizing space. Even with its success, it could not end up addressing the dynamics it was formed in a direction towards, and therefore a new dynamic could be tried.
Another important assessment is how minority opinions are being addressed in the organization. No platform, as adaptive as it can be, will ever include a complete diversity of opinions, and there are likely some points within it that people can stray from and still feel welcomed into the organization. There are likely informal ideological and strategic opinions that people appear to have general consensus on, but some still do not share them. This really means is that you need to build a space for these minority voices to be both respected and heard. Having a modified consensus or voting structure can help with this as it allows someone to dissent without blocking the entire project. They also need the ability to truly advocate for that position, to not be silenced, and to make attempts to convert others. The most important thing here is that if a minority opinion becomes a majority opinion, the organization has to be open to changing to reflect the new opinions of the membership. This can be difficult when a few die-hard founders of the organization refuse the change and just point to the platform and constitution in opposition. Stating ahead of time that all members are open to the possibility of reform to the founding documents at all times is important, so that you cannot stifle evolution as it is occurring in the moment.
Adaptation really allows for a new synthesis to take place and to take the anarchist project much further than where it is at currently. While anarchism has failed to bring about catastrophic state tyrannies as Marxism did in the twentieth-century, it has also failed to sustain societal transformation. As we head into an entirely new period of history, we need to use the adaptive qualities of our organizations to birth new ideas that see a foundation in the past. As Christopher Day of Love and Rage pointed out when considering their anarchism, you can’t just stay still and expect anarchism to be a major force in the world.
If anarchism is to become a serious revolutionary movement, it must develop a new body of theory and analysis and that will require discarding various cherished anarchist prejudices. The revolutionary anarchism of the future should be a living synthesis of all the useful thinking and great ideas found in the course of the struggle for human freedom. We are not the first group of anarchists to be frustrated by the deep structural problems of anarchism. In this sense, we are part of what can be called a revolutionary anarchist tradition-a small but vital current within anarchism that has sought to learn lessons from our defeats, struggled to raise anarchist politics above the level of naïve moralism, confronted head-on the contradictions within anarchist thinking, fought for tighter forms of organization, and sought to develop a coherent strategy for actually making anarchist revolution. (6)
It is Day’s later conversion to a Leninist variation that people often use to undermine the passage, and while many parts of it may call for a level of formalized organization we do not share, it shows that creating a “new” theory of anarchism relies on the ability to truly shed the orthodoxies of the past.
Over the last twenty-years we have seen the development of varying models of political organization, from strictly anarchist formations to ones that are open to libertarian Marxist strains. One thing that brought a sense of commonality is that they all reflected a sense of the need for political seriousness, and commitment to a common idea on some level. Some reflected this need for serious and the development of a profound revolutionary understanding in the need for study and long-term commitment to the organization at the cost of increased membership. Bring the Ruckus, focusing on race as primary and bringing in a larger swath of the anti-authoritarian left, has one of the best reputations for making some of these elements work. Joel Olson, most often assumed as the most high profile founder, sheds light on the idea of cadre as simply a standard of serious commitment.
A cadre organization is not necessarily a vanguard organization, as some anarchists mistakenly assume. It is simply a group of committed, active, revolutionary intellectuals who share a common politics and who come together to develop revolutionary thought and practice and test it out in struggle. By “active” I mean one who is involved in political struggle, not merely a book reader. By “intellectual” I don’t mean someone with a college degree but one who makes a serious, ongoing commitment to understanding the world in order to better agitate within in. A cadre group is not a mass organization like Anti-Racist Action, Janitors for Justice, the Wobblies, or the Repeal Coalition, i.e. a political group that involves a (potentially) large amount of people fighting for specific demands. Nor does a cadre assume leadership of mass organizations (i.e. it doesn’t create “front groups”), although its members may play leadership roles if they have earned the respect of others in the organization. Nor does it try to co-opt or use these organizations for its own ends, although it certainly participates democratically in struggles over their purpose and direction. (7)
What one can immediately take from this description is that many organizations can take on the term “cadre,” though each having divergent sets of membership requirements. The focus here is on study, engaging in mass movements, and having an ideological organization. What is specific, however, is that he never explicitly said that the organization needs to have a stated ideological orientation, and many cadre organizations actually have a looser orientation since they are hoping to develop an entirely new praxis out of study. Likewise, many cadre organizations actually have been communist vanguardist organizations, and even been welcoming to authoritarian politics that has made them the target of anarchist scorn.
This had along with it a paired critique in that this level of commitment was necessarily exclusionary, and much of that exclusion was not based on the ability to do the work of the organization. This often comes from a demand to focus on intellectual pursuits whose goals draw mainly from people’s experience in higher education, drawing it away from the participation of working people who have had to focus on issues of survival rather than study.
As an autodidactic/movement-educated person from a “lower rung of the ladder” of the broad category that many called the “working class;” coupled with my orientation within the by and large anti-intellectual subculture of punk rock; a person who was not of the academic (at the risk of inviting hair-splitting polemics; one might even call it “middle class”) background that many members of BTR were of; I found myself at odds with the internal culture of BTR on many occasions. (8)
These were common criticisms that have been raised about BTR, and often come from a “culture of critique” that forms when intensive study of “high theory” becomes the focus. This does not have to be presented in this way, and groups for reading and study can exist in a more inclusive framework, but framing commitment to the organization as the ability to focus on study shows its own problems pretty clearly.
The point here is if you want to define your organization as a cadre, meaning it is the most committed layer of “professional revolutionaries.” Membership is exclusive and small, often invitation only. Joining may take many months, in some groups even a year or more, and has the level of commitment that people often associate with religious organizations. Miami Autonomy and Solidarity has been called an anarchist cadre organization in that it asks members to take a longer joining process and are encouraged to take on personal development like learning Spanish, but it does not reflect many of the more restrictive cadre elements that other groups do.
The question here is an honest one about how you really see your organizational goals. There is an easy way to strike a balance where you have clear membership requirements, a joining process that requires approval, and an expected level of commitment and study. Having a member read a book and having a member join a six-month study session are fundamentally different proposals, and they end up creating much different organizations. You can maintain the seriousness of commitment without creating exclusionary cells, and this is going to be really important if your goal is to work openly in broader social movements and to attract people to anarchist ideas within those social movements. Within the organization you will also develop a committed “cadre” either way, though what that means really depends on what qualities and commitments the organization sees as collectively important.
Looking for a Guide
Remember what has gotten here. Maps with no end spot, plans that were never possible, a liberal vision that could never materialize. All the blueprints that have been written have been failures in their entirety, if they weren’t we would be living in a much different world. Instead, what we have are flickers of hope, half thoughts that need to be finished. Together we place words in order to create new experiments, anarchisms that can be discussed and debated for years. We may know that there are some approximations out there; we have taken a serious misstep if we see them so clearly that they become a prediction for what works before they do. Though strange, the only way we will know if we were successful is once we have jumped through to the other side.
Instead, we should look for clear lessons from the experimentation of the past. If we can see what worked in ideological organizations, what seemed to clause sectarian splits, and what kept them away from real mass movements, we can try to easily jump over the hurdles that we all encounter with challenges like these. The Spanish Revolution and the Ukrainian Free Territory are often cited as the only true examples of a modern anarchist revolution that really challenges the very basic nature of society, but if that is true then it makes us feel even further away from what we can employ to create a revolutionary wave. Instead, looking to the confrontational occupations of the labor movement, the experimentation of student struggles, the direct action of environmental and housing struggles, and every moment where a glimmer of a new world can be seen. We can then try to boil down their essence, give shape and form for the struggle, and implement what has been successful with a vision to create something wholly new that is just as successful as the Catalonian communes.
We need to be committed to failure, because it shows that we were blazing forward with the kind of commitment that is necessary for revolution to remain the endgame. If we continually err on the side of caution we stick only with what we know, and we may never see tactics and ideas outside of our purview. We need to listen to voices from the outside.
Likewise, the time has come to be self-conscious about our politics. While it has been fine to let anarchism’s idea filter throughout the culture, from lifestyle choices to direct action tactics, it may be time to reseat them in their rightful place. Anarchism as a revolutionary force, as well as a fountain of ideas for resistance, has established itself in our movements, often running under the current. The Occupy Movement was founded on anarchist principles from start to finish, and it became remarkable the ways that the term anarchism was avoided in favor of listing its qualities. The anti-globalization movement, which marked the nineties, was again colored with the shifting intersectional politics of the period, and we finally saw a crash into anarchism of the public discourse as Starbucks was smashed open in Seattle. For decades since the Spanish Revolution we have seen anarchism by any other name, filtering into everything from anti-war projects to the anti-nuclear movement. With this momentum it is hard to agree that anarchism has only been a footnote in our collective history of resistance.
As anarchism courts every social movement that we draw inspiration from, we can’t say that it has been vacant from any period of transformative struggle. It is anarchism’s stand against coercion that has often allowed its Marxist counterparts to exceed it in the eyes of the world, and with that character we have often decided to make the ideas more important than the title. This may be the time to stand forward with anarchism and show that its history of more than a 150 years has instead seen it influencing generations of the left, from art to the unions. If we want to see the ideas continuing to resonate, we need to remind people they have a name.
As we go forward we should start a new thread, with little pieces that we can put together. See what fits. Try something new. We can avoid the cliché’s of the groundswell of bottom-up movements, while knowing how we stand against the centralizing authoritarian tendencies that Leninists have injected into revolutionary left-wing orientations. An organization of our own can be anything, not the least of which is a reflection of the commitment we have to the mass social movements that will actually be the actors of a new world. As neither vanguardist nor observer, we can stand consciously for an anti-authoritarian worldview and openly advocate against the bankruptcy of capitalism and the state.
It is with this that I take a step back, and look towards my comrades to complete my thoughts. I know there is a lot more that could be said…
Shane Burley is a writer, organizer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. He has worked extensively both in labor and housing justice organizing with movements such as Take Back the Land, Metro Justice, Jobs With Justice, and the Portland Solidarity Network. He is a founding member of the Rochester Red and Black collective, and later radical collectives and federations. His work has appeared in publications such as In These Times, Labor Notes, Roar Magazine, Waging Nonviolence, the Institute for Anarchist Studies, and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. He recently published a chapter on the anti-foreclosure movement for the book The End of the World as We Know It? from AK Press, and has chapters in upcoming volumes on food justice and critical pedagogue. He recently completed the documentary Expect Resistance, which chronicles the intersection of the housing justice and Occupy movements.
1. Bray, Mark. Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street (New York: Zero Books, 2013).
2. Faure, Sebastien. The Anarchist Synthesis (1927). Retrieved on July 21st, 2014 from Anarkismo.http://www.anarkismo.net/article/20253.
3. Rogue, Jen and Deric Shannon (2009). “Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality,”Anarkismo. http://anarkismo.net/article/14923
4. Rogue, Jen and Abbey Volcano. “Insurrection and the Intersection.” Quiet Rumors: An Anarcha-Feminist Reader, 3rd Edition. Ed. Dark Star Collective. (Oakland: AK Press, 2012). Pg 45.
5. Matt, Black. A New World in Our Hearts 8 Years of Writing from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. Oakland: AK Press, 2003. Pg. 67.
6. Day, Christopher. A New World in Our Hearts 8 Years of Writing from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation. Oakland: AK Press, 2003. Pg. 41.
7. Olson, Joel. “Movement, Cadre, and Dual Power.” Perspectives on Anarchist Theory V. 13 N. 1(2011). Pg. 33.