For revolutionary struggle, not activism

Below is an article I’ve written for the upcoming issue of Imminent Rebellion, published by Rebel Press:

For revolutionary struggle, not activism

By Asher

“We need more people!” “If only there were more anarchists…”

These phrases and others like them are all too common amongst our anarchist communities across Aotearoa (and no doubt the rest of the world). But in themselves, they betray a fatal mistake in our goals, in how we see our role in moving towards a revolutionary situation.

An anarchist revolution will not come if we simply seek to convert more people to anarchism. Rather, more people adopting anarchist theory will be a by-product of successful anarchist organising and solidarity. There are a few issues we need to examine in order to best understand the role of anarchists in capitalist society.

Who will make a revolution?

An anarchist revolution cannot be made by a vanguard, by an elite group of activists, politicos or anarchists. A truly libertarian revolution, which all anarchists seek, can only be made by the great mass of the working class, in a broad sense of the term. This revolution will not magically appear the day we manage to get 51% of the population to call themselves anarchists, but rather by constantly seeking to expand upon the consciousness and militancy of the working class.

Genuine revolution will not be created by a specialist group of “professional revolutionaries”. While many anarchists have a sound critique of groups such as Greenpeace, SAFE or Amnesty International in that they posit themselves as the experts on activism, who the majority of people can pay to do political work, anarchists frequently fail to see that much of what they are doing is exactly the same, except they’re silly enough to do it for free! A large chunk of activism done by anarchists in Aotearoa in the last few years has been of this bent – we call the marches, we show up (perhaps with a few others, but rarely from outside of the wider activist circles), we hand out leaflets to bemused onlookers (who either ignore us or laugh at us, but certainly wouldn’t join in), then we go home. Ongoing organising be damned, we’re making a stand!

What are we doing?

Almost all anarchist activity in Aotearoa falls into two broad categories – activism (covering protests, single-issue groups etc) and propaganda (infoshops and publishing). It is activism that I will deal with here.

Activism deals primarily with issues far removed from the everyday lives of most people in Aotearoa – NZ troop involvement in overseas invasions, coal mines on the West Coast, a meeting of rich countries on the other side of the planet. In focussing on this type of issue, we ensure that we remain invisible to the vast majority of the working class, and out of touch with the very forces that can create the revolutionary situation we so desire.

In activism, we separate ourselves from the majority of the populace – protesting, marching, direct action etc are activities undertaken by “activists”, a specialist cadre of experts on social change.

Of course, there is no continuity in our activism, no real ongoing organising. Just jumping from protest to protest, deluding ourselves that we are having any effect whatsoever. Even our ongoing campaigns (for instance anti-war, or Save Happy Valley) are generally little more than semi-regular protests, with the odd press release in between. Almost nowhere is there any long term, strategic, grassroots organising taking place. Almost nowhere do we seem to acknowledge that things do take time to come to fruition. Instead, we bang our heads against a brick wall for a while, then move round the corner to the wall made of concrete, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’re making progress.

Our activities are primarily oriented to other radicals, both in Aotearoa and overseas. We go to protests with each other, then head to a computer and post reports and photos on Indymedia, so our activist friends around the country can see what we did. If the demo was especially interesting, we might even all go together to a flat so we can see ourselves on the evening news! We are an insular collection of people, and even when we have the appearance of interacting with the public (for instance, on a march), we still ensure that we are separate from them, the “normals”. We don’t engage in conversation, just hand them a flier then move on, and after a while retreat back to the other radicals, safe behind a line of banners.

Against a subcultural orientation

The anarchist community in Aotearoa is thoroughly mired in subcultural politics. The punk and hippy subcultures between them supply the bulk of self-identified anarchists, with most of the remainder coming through the “alternative” liberal (ie – Green Party, fair trade, organics etc) community. That’s not to say that none of those people are working class, but rather that they are getting involved because of their subcultural identity.

There is a huge difference between a working class movement that is oriented to working class struggles and therefore attracts working class people, and a subcultural community that is oriented to specific subcultures and therefore attracts people from those subcultures. One of the above options could lead to a revolutionary situation. The other keeps us in our self-built ghetto.

For struggles of everyday life

If we are seeking to expand the consciousness and militancy of the working class, we need to stop focussing on battles which for most people appear to have little relevance, and are totally unwinnable for us few anarchists in Aotearoa anyway. We need to move away from the WTO and towards the workplace, away from the coal-mine and towards the community, away from the spectacular summit demo and towards the struggles of everyday life.

We need to stand in solidarity with workplace struggles that are taking place – standing on the picket lines and engaging with the workers taking part. We also need to be agitating with our workmates in our own work places. There are always grievances, it is our task to do all we can to promote collective action to fight for better wages and conditions, of course without any illusions that this will ever be enough in and of itself.

We need to be engaging with our own communities, whether they be geographical, ethnic or otherwise. In our geographical communities, we need to agitate with those around us and build a sense of purposeful connection now, so that when attacks come, we already have a base from which to struggle. When city councils attempt to impose extra charges (such as bin taxes or water metering), destroy community facilities such as libraries or swimming pools, or raise rents on council flats, we need to stand with our communities in opposition and fight.

This type of organising around the struggles of everyday life isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t sexy, but it is vital if we are to build a revolutionary movement against capital and state. The more we struggle, the more we build our bases in our workplaces and communities, the better chance we have of winning, and the broader and more interlinked our struggles will become.

For the broadening and intensification of struggle

“I am an anarchist not because I believe Anarchism is the final goal, but because I believe there is no such thing as a final goal. Freedom will lead us to continually wider and expanding understanding and to new social forms of life.”
Rudolf Rocker, a German anarcho-syndicalist

It is the task of anarchists to always be broadening the terms of any given struggle, and to fight against its recuperation. In workplace struggles, we should be wary of union attempts to sell out workers. In community struggles, we should be wary of NGOs and community groups who may seek a swift resolution without the meeting of all demands.

We must always seek to bring to light the systemic roots of what we are fighting against, and to link our struggles with others happening within our communities and around the world.

We must also realise that the odds are stacked against us, and, for a long time, we will likely lose more than we win. This doesn’t mean that we should stop fighting, or retreat into our activist ghettos. For if we fight, we have a chance at creating a better society, but in giving up or retreating, we lose any chance we ever had.

Further Reading

The Myth Of Passivity by Toby Boraman
The Myth Of Passivity documents the class struggles against the neoliberal policies of the 1980′s, such as the Employment Contracts Act, “Ruthinasia”, and “Rogernomics”. It takes a critical look at the way major Unions opposed these policies as well as looking at resistance from groups such as Maori, the Unemployed and Anarchists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/myth-passivity-class-struggles-neoliberalism-aotearoa-toby-boraman or order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/194

Beyond Resistance: A Revolutionary Manifesto by the Anarchist Federation (UK)
Beyond Resistance is the Anarchist Federation’s analysis of the capitalist world in crisis, suggestions about what the alternative anarchist communist society could be like, and evaluation of social and organisational forces which play a part in the revolutionary process.
Available for order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/357

The Lessons Of The Bin Tax Struggle – Interview with Dermot Sreenan, Workers Solidarity Movement
The opening years of the century saw a mass community based struggle against the shifting of taxation further onto the working class in Dublin, Ireland. Thousands of households were paid up members of the campaign and tens of thousands refused to pay this new tax over a period of years despite prosecutions, media hysteria and the jailing of over 20 activists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/the-lessons-of-the-bin-tax-struggle

Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns
The gripping inside story of the biggest mass movement in British history, which at its peak involved over 17 million people. Using a combination of photos, text, and graphics, and drawing from the voices of activists and non-payers, it describes the everyday organization of local anti-poll tax groups and chronicles the demonstrations and riots leading up to the battle of Trafalgar. It shows how the courts were blocked, the bailiffs resisted, and the Poll Tax destroyed.
Available for order from http://akpress.com/1996/items/polltaxrebellion and see a review at http://libcom.org/library/poll-tax-rebellion-danny-burns-reviewed-wildcat-uk-1993

Also see the history, library and organise sections at http://www.libcom.org

16 Responses to For revolutionary struggle, not activism

  1. kakariki says:

    I dunno Asher. It seems to me that you are applying a very narrow definition of activism in this article. I think that protest is only one form of activism and this seems to be the only kind you are discussing.

    I would think that there’s a lot more anarchist activism going on in Aotearoa that doesn’t fall within your two categories. Gardening and parenting for example. Both aren’t inherently anarchist activities but they can be depending on how we approach them.

    I’d say another major form of anarchist activism is the decisions we make when we buy or don’t buy things. The major operating system of capitalism is the market. The market is people buying stuff. It’s not much more complicated than that. So when we make decisions not to buy stuff, or to buy only certain kinds of stuff it is absolutely possible to apply anarchist principles to those decisions. I would say that is definitely activism.

    xox

  2. Scott says:

    Hi Asher,

    good to see you’re still blogging.

    My beef with a lot of anarchist writing of this type – in NZ, at least – is that it focuses on anarchist practice and the practice of the wider left, when the reality is that the left as a whole, let alone the far left, let alone the anarchist subsection of the far left, has very little power to determine the course of events in NZ in the near to medium future. Now that doesn’t mean, of course, that the left and sections of the left shouldn’t debate the way they organise, campaign, spread ideas etc I’m not saying your article is in way unnecessary.

    But I do miss, in the writing of Kiwi anarchists, any sort of analysis of the dynamics of our society – any account of the tendencies which are driving our economy, our mainstream politics, our popular culture, and so on.

    Here’s a burning question, for instance – are we heading for a recession or even a depression on the back of wobbles in the US and elsewhere, or is the robust performance of the economy of the past few years – a factor which has had so much to do with the stability of the Labour government – going to continue? And if it doesn’t, how will that affect us all? How will trade unions, which have increased their muscle thanks to a tight labour market, cope? How will Labour’s attempts to buy off groups of dissidents – Ngati Porou, with aquaculture deals, or public sector workers, with pay increases like the one the nurses were given – be affected? What are the propects for the unemployed workers’ movement, which declined drastically after the reconomy improved? etc etc

    I realise that none of us has a crystal ball, but I nevertheless think we have to hazard the odd guess about this sort of thing. I don’t mean to pick on anarchists too much here. I think many of us – well, me, and a few people I know – on the far left have been a bit unprepared for the road that this Labour government has travelled since ’99. On the one hand, Labour has unexpectedly been able to keep a lot of its working class base quite happy with a relatively buoyant economy. The neo-liberal reform agenda has usually been frozen, even though it has only been very rarely (eg state house market rents) been rolled back. It was South Auckland and other working class areas that bailed Labour out in 2005.

    On the other hand, Labour has been extraordinarily reactionary when it comes to a range of ‘social’ and international issues – the War of Terror, the Howard doctrine in the Pacific, racist legislation against Maori, and the attack on the activist left last year. The result, I think, is that the activist community and oppressed minority groups like Maori and the Muslim community have been angered and in some cases radicalised, while the workers’ movement has been by and large content (and I wish that wasn’t so, obviously).

    All this is different to the situation during the last Labour era of 84-90, when the workers were up in arms and some moderate parts of the activist and Maori movements were content (the nuke ships ban and Waitangi process buttered them up).
    I must admit I didn’t expect this paradox. I thought Labour would alienate its working class constituency, and – I know this sounds naive – I never imagined think it’d follow the US and Oz so far into the War of Terror (you’ve got to remember I’m thinking back to 99, before 9/11).

    Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud, trying tog et my head around the paradoxes of the Clark era. I’d be interested to get your thoughts about these questions. All the best with your various projects!

    Scott

  3. Mollymew says:

    Hi Asher,
    Do you mind if I reprint the above article over at Molly’s Blog (with reference to your posting at the Carnival of Anarchy as well) ?

  4. Asher says:

    Feel free :)

    (and yes, I’ll reply to the more detailed comments sometime later!)

  5. mike.e says:

    I agree !

    regarding consumers and boycotts,thats important too.
    Scott has a point too about the overall view and direction.

    Does calling it anarchism box it in,and allow the governments view of anarchism(bomb throwing chaos) to prejudice ideas atleast in the publics mind until they meet some one who removes this?

    Just some random thoughts
    .right Back to study…quit procrastinating.heh
    Mike.e

  6. Anonymouse says:

    Nice try, but your effort to take some kind of high ground against activism is pretty flawed and transparent. You are trying to make an artificial separation between forms of social organizing that always fall into the broad umbrella of “activism.”

    You do make the distinction between community activists and NGOs, but I think you are still confused about the difference between rank-and-file activists and professional activists.

    The other main problem with your arguments here is that you repeat the workerist canard that people can be separated into “activists” and “labor organizers” or “revolutionaries.” The obvious refutation of this is that many people are engaged in both community and workplace struggles. People are involved in workplace struggles and activism. Most intelligent people don’t see a need to compartmentalize their struggles. You may think that bike activism is “lifestylist” or whatever, but most bike activists use their bikes to GET TO WORK.

    I also know plenty of activists who are interested in revolutionary struggle. I’ll associate with those who have a commitment to practical activities that net results and who are revolutionary, not those who wear revolution on their sleeves and whose activity consists of whining about the radicals who are getting shit done.

  7. anonymice says:

    I go to protests when I can. I read indymedia. I try to stay on top of what’s happening. I really do try, but it is so difficult.
    My experiences with trying to become involved with protests etc is that people are quick to judge you for not being radical enough, quick to criticise other left factions for being incorrect, quick to judge for not knowing enough…Also, people just seem to talk to each other, and it feels like no one really cares that you’re there, because they don’t know you.
    I’m not sure how this is going to happen, but if that exclusiveness/superiority thing disappears, It would be a lot easier to get involved and get my friends involved if more effort was made to welcome unfamiliar faces…

  8. daniel rae says:

    Hey there,

    well this is the first time I have ever replied to a blog! Guess that is what happens if you are home alone very tired but can’t quite bring yourself to go to bed.

    There has been a number of this types of articles over the past few years and I guess I would agree with the general tone of them. The “scatter-gun” approach to organising is something we definitely need to think beyond and develop methods of on-going movement building (if I can use that term). Not sure if I like the whole lumping together of “anarchist activists” however. Some of us always have to deal with life outside of the “activist community”. I have often felt alienated form anarchist organising over the years because it is largely been dominated by middle-class “professional” protestors who have chosen to go on the dole (nothing wrong with that in itself of course!) but there has been numerous times were comments/attitudes of the people involved have made me think how detached it all seems from what you term the “everyday struggles” of “non-activists” or the “working class”. Its is of course also largely dominated by pakeha males as well, but since that isn’t the focus of the this article I will leave that to later.

    Also sometime I often feel dismayed with is that we often don’t seem to try very hard to involve other people. It often seems that personal friendships or organising with or “mates” is more important that building political movements. Not staying that personal relationships aren’t important but private oraganising and knowledge based on personal connects can be good but also quite damaging. Surely we need to build groups/movements/struggles were we can oraginse with people we don’t maybe get along with. Also I think that this ties in with what you are saying about what issues we focus on. I totally agree with you in that a lot of things aren’t considered sexy, and in much the same way we don’t seem much interested in real discussions about internal democracy (sp?) or meeting culture because things like spies or security culture is way more “cool”. Also agree with Scott about our lack of thinking about the current state of things in NZ or future trends.

    blah blah should really go to bed

    dan rae

  9. daniel rae says:

    Oh, I will quickly rely to the idea that what we buy or don’t buy is important. I have real problems with this even though I try and do that type of thing in my own life. To me in just seems to reinforce many of the things “we” might be fighting against. It seem to buy into our individualist, consumerist culture. Instead of collective action we have to chose the right “moral” thing to consume as individuals. This seems to largely just lead down a path of Moral self righteous (not everyone has that attitude of course!) and also seem to to me to be the politics of middle class values. Its fine if you can afford fair trade and organic many people can’t its a struggle to pay the bills. Many of us can’t make jam or our own peanut butter etc because we don’t have time. It seemt to be all about maintain western middle class lifestyles without any real change-instead we just buy the right products not the “wrong” ones.

    dan

  10. daniel rae says:

    just thought I would clarify things since I wrote the above when i was very tired! I agree with nearly all of the article that ash has written and I guess I was just trying to flesh out things a bit in relation to my experiences of what he was talking about.

    I don’t think I will post to blogs or indy again!!!
    dan

  11. anarkaytie says:

    Hey Asher,

    Some good points, and I agree with you about the ‘us-them’ dynamic (having drifted into anarchism out of a ‘them’ category of liberal activism).

    The challenge is to be more inclusive of new people, to maybe offer discussion sessions that allow exploration of thinking, not just exposition of the current purpose-of-protest.. and that comes down to a time management thing, ‘cos so many activists are working on more than one kaupapa at once.

    This is all very pertinent for me, after sitting on the Freedom Shop table at the gig at the Adelaide Bar in Newtown yesterday, for the afternoon, and seeing how many people had come into the pub, as regulars, but were not comfortable approaching ‘the anarchists’ running the info table or the books stall. Yeah, I was people watching as much as I was listening to the great line-up of performers we had there…

    I’d also earlier been down to the wharf to visit some mates from Auckland who were in harbour on the Rainbow Warrior II, so my cross-organisational antennae were fully functional.
    I couldn’t help contrasting the way total strangers, many without an activist connection, were welcomed into the space of the ship, and given a personal run-down on the actions that individuals on the ship had participated in. I managed to thank the Communications guy for the work that had been done in Lyttleton to draw attention to the Westport coal exports, which makes a mockery of the Carbon Emmissions caps that the government has agreed to, if they are profiting from selling low-grade coal to other nations.

    If activism is going to survive in Aotearoa/NZ, we need to accept that sometimes, we have to reach out to other groups who have resources of personnel and equipment that we can collaborate with, if the end purpose is a mutually agreed goal. The Anti-War marches of 2003 were a good example of this. There are still a lot of areas where anarchist activists have common thinking with more established groups, but the will to reach out is sometimes just not there.

    Human Rights abuses, land confiscation and post-colonisation policies are all ‘up top’ in our concerns right now – how we get others to engage in these struggles is the challenge.

    Me, I’m just opening my big mouth and asking them to join us, any time I can. Anywhere, in any forum, that I have access to. It’s a start, and just maybe, it’ll work. But if I don’t ask, I’ll never know!

    Keep loving, keep fighting!
    xxXXxx K

  12. juan.castro says:

    @ Anonymouse

    Marx 101: “liberal activists”, even if they wanted to, CANNOT create the downfall of capitalism. Workers CAN, by using their economic power. Simple as that.

    @ ‘Anti-capitalist consumers’

    Cmon. That sort of shit is reserved for apolitical hippies and the green movement more broadly. Our goal is not to affect supply and demand, our goal is to create a fucking revolution. I’m happy to use vegetarianism/veganism/brand boycotting/whatever as awareness raising tools, but lets not waste our time advocating these things: there are more fundamental arguments to be making.

    Great article, and I agree with almost all of it, the only exception probably being the community-based stuff… I’m not sure how that fits in with your class analysis of the role of workers, given that a community can be made up (and often is made up) of people with differing class interests. A middle-class family might not care that library internet services are inadequate, but a working-class refugee family sure as hell will.

    Community stuff is ok, as long as we’re cautious about how we use the term. We don’t want it to be used as a tool for the ruling class ala nationalism. In any case, I think it’s worthy work but not really a priority.

  13. juan.castro says:

    I just noticed my usage of the vague, confusing and useless term ‘middle-class’. My mistake.

  14. shmulik says:

    from the New Centrist

    I’ve found that most people on the radical left (whether “authoritarian” or “libertarian”) subscribe to various forms of fantasy ideologies. For them, politics is about validating their own personal political beliefs (like being “anti-state”) rather than accomplishing anything political. That’s not to say that the libertarian left holds uninteresting political beliefs. But let’s be honest, how many of these black-hooded youths actually thinks “the state” is going to collapse anytime soon?

    I used to consider myself an anarchist. Anarchism was–key word being was–a thriving political movement in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because it had a strong foundation in working-class communities. Today it is mostly a fad for middle-class college students, like socialism in general. This, not government repression, explains the movement’s weakness. These ideologies lack any sort of appeal amongst the classes they were once associated with. Historian Ron Radosh refers to this as the “leftover left”.

    Marko articulates similar thoughts when he writes:

    It may be true, philosophically speaking, that anarchists who support autonomous communes are fundamentally different from statist socialists who support a centrally planned economy, but given the unlikelihood that the ideals of either will ever be realised, I do not consider it particularly worthwhile to discuss such differences. What matters is where one stands on concrete issues relating to struggles that are actually taking place…

    And this is the key point: real, meaningful change is possible under the existing liberal-democratic order, whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better. If I have ‘made my peace’ with the existing order, it is not because I think the existing order is perfect, but because it is an existing order that can be improved, whereas the radical-left alternatives do not offer any realistic prospect for successful progressive change.

    That’s the clincher. As I’ve written elsewhere, utopian political programs lead to dystopian outcomes. Reform is necessary in any society or system of government, economics, jurisprudence, and so forth. But revolution, at least as dreamed by the radical left in the U.S., is a fantasy.

  15. adams says:

    In response to shmulik italics:

    - whereas there is no reason to believe that this order can be overthrown and replaced by something radically different and better.-

    no reason? or no desire? or no ability? it seems usually the liberal reformist left sells itself short and this is entirely appropriate vocabulary considering the wholesale acceptance of dominant capitalist ideology. certainly it could be proposed that to encourage truly radical and catastrophic change one would have to adopt strategies and tactics that were truly radical themselves. for one, rebuking the longterm viability of tactics that are ultimately allowed and even condoned by the state such as thoroughly planned rallies (with their proper permits and activist prefiguration training usually led by others of credentials showing the proper way to get arrested; having support from local lawyers to make sure all the arrest are propoerly conducted if necessary etc..), collecting signatures, vigils usually involving the consumption and sale of food or auctions or voting or numerous other examples of legitamizing the state and the systems of exploitation that surround it. you’ll never vote the state out of existence. and never once do reformist libs seems to acknowledge the great privelge they continue to enjoy by keepingthe state in existence and being fortunate enough to only want to improve it, margianlly I might add. the mystification of gradualism

    not only in condoning the above tactics as methods of strategically viable options in pursuing social change, there is no real critical praxis undertaken in the rejection of revamping revolutionary tools such as dual power and autonomy and reimagining them in ways to propose successful alternatives to the state. alternative and free health clinics, schools, housing and resource ghathering that in actuality provides the needs (and oppurtunities to learn how to provide themselves) those who don’t benefit from the regular ‘benefactors’ and those that do – by choosign to participate which often means just showing up. historically (spain 36, korea 24, ukraine 19, alternative abortive clinics in the us, ) and in present reality (zapatistas, argentinian worker run factories, current proliferation of free schools, identified squats, midwives) these things have existed and exist successfully (not that they don’t have their own problems but I leave the unreality of perfection and the soliphism inherent to the producers of razors and other innumerable and exponentially ‘improved’ products – quattro, mach3, xtreme etc..)

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