Monday, October 18, 2010

Anarchism is about Struggle (from 2004)

First up, this is an article I wrote nearly seven years ago. It was a pretty good summary of how I saw the anarchist movement at the time. It was written when the majority of the anarchist movement in Aotearoa was either ignorant of (or opposed to) class struggle politics. The article was published in Imminent Rebellion Issue 2, which was a fairly popular but politically jumbled up anarchist magazine. The article provoked and offended a few people and generated a lot of debate. Various replies were published in issues three and four of Imminent Rebellion, and all issues are available as PDFs here.
Since I wrote this in 2004 things have gotten much worse and much better at the same time. The anti war movement created a new generation of anarchists (especially in Wellington) but as the anti war movement faded and anarchists got involved in different projects two things happened. Some anarchists got involved in workplace politics with the Autonomous Workers Union in Dunedin and the Unite Union in the rest of the country, and for a while lots of anarchists were doing really good stuff and having an influence in the wider left and workers movement. But many others retreated into the ghetto and became even more inward looking than before. This wasn’t helped by several instances of sexual abuse and violence by a few men in the anarchist scene. This abuse was handled badly by almost all who were involved on all sides and left most of the scene shattered and divided. Then in 2007, October 15th happened and lots of people still haven’t recovered from that.

On the bright side, there are now two class struggle anarchist groups that have formed and are doing good stuff. AWSM, which I am part of, is an anarchist communist group formed in 2008, and although its small and mostly Wellington based with a few members around the country, is pretty permanent looking and publishes several hundred copies of its newspaper regularly. And in Christchurch, Beyond Resistance is doing well too. They are a class struggle anarchist group that leans towards anarcho syndicalism. There are a few good anarchist activists active in each of the other main centres but unfortunately no groups yet.
There are also a few non class struggle anarchists, who are involved in either single issue campaigns, or anti racist work. Although I don’t agree with them politically, they are anarchists and I regard them as friends and sometimes allies.

Sadly, outside of that, most of the anarchist ‘scene’ (to call it a movement would be misleading) has degenerated into an irrelevant waste of space made up of small informal groups of dysfunctional people who tend to be opposed to organisation, class struggle, and the real world.

And Imminent Rebellion is still a terrible name for a zine!

Anarchism is about Struggle
First published January 2004 in Imminent Rebellion Issue 2

 I have been asked to write something on the future of the anarchism in this country. I must admit to being highly cynical and depressed about the state of anarchism in Aotearoa. The Anarchist movement remains a small and largely irrelevant movement. It seems to me that the current movement is repeating the same mistakes we made in the 1990s when I first got involved in anarchism in Wellington and Christchurch.

Today's anarchist movement seems to be mostly an inward looking counterculture alternative lifestyle movement. For most of the movement, there is no sense of being part of a long tradition of resistance and struggle going back a hundred years. Anarchists were active in all the major struggles in New Zealand last century, from 1913, the unemployed movement in the 1930s, the 1951 lockout, the anti Vietnam war movement, etc. The current anarchist movement in this country started in the 1990s, with most of the main activists coming from a background in punk or the McGillicuddy[1] movement.

These anarchists were active in the unemployed rights movement of the early 1990s, and the protests against the 1991 Iraq war. We were very keen, convinced we were right and that we didn't need to learn anything from older folks, especially if they weren't anarchists. The 1990s anarchist scene in Christchurch fizzled and died, as most people gave up on radical politics, left town or went mad. In the North Island, it wasn't quite so bad but, after a few years, a lot of the active people either left politics altogether or went into the Green Party (two current (2004) Green MPs and half a dozen of their current parliamentary staff came through the 1990s anarcho/McGillicuddy scene). Most were just passing through looking for a good time before they had to think about jobs, kids, careers etc. Some realised they weren't getting anywhere and left anarchism for the green party, "single issue" campaign groups, went mad, or they became old and grumpy like me.

So what went wrong and led to most of the active people giving up on anarchism? Obviously in any political movement there is a high rate of burnout and eventually a lot of people will move on to other things after a while. But I think there were a few factors that made the anarchist movement even more prone to losing people than usual. The Christchurch anarchist scene thought the established left groups at the time were a bunch of boring old farts who couldn't possibly have anything interesting to say to us. While we occasionally went to a few of their demos and other events, we certainly didn't offer them any help or take part in the organising. Instead we organised our own anti McDonalds demos which were advertised by word of mouth to our anarchist friends. Not surprisingly we didn't get many new people to these small events. Years later, when some of us actually talked to these boring old farts we discovered that a lot of them knew more about anarchism and radical politics than we did and were very dedicated and experienced activists (quite a few were still boring old farts though!).

In Wellington it wasn't quite so bad as some of the central people in the Committee for the Establishment of Civilisation (CEC) were heavily involved in the peace movement, but there was still a lot of sectarianism towards the rest of the left. Most of the anarchist movement was based on the punk/hippy subculture. While there was usually no deliberate attempt to exclude `normal' people, anyone who had kids, a job, a normal haircut, or listened to Dire Straits did not feel welcome in our circles. We met mostly in grotty flats, listened to punk music and looked down on anyone who was `straight'. Anyone dressed in normal clothes who stayed on in spite of all this was then suspected of being an undercover cop![2] We were not interested in anarchist theory and we didn't consider ourselves to be part of the left. We thought we were "neither left nor right, but out in front" (a slogan currently being used by the green party). A few individuals did develop an interest in anarchist theory or history but it was never something that was considered important for the whole movement. As a result, anarchist groups were incapable of having informed discussions about politics, which seems pretty silly when you think about it. In short, the basic problem was that the anarchist scene was based mostly on a youth subculture social scene, not politics. It was far easier for a teenage punk or hippy to get involved in our scene than for older political activists to meet us. Anarchists saw themselves as separate from the rest of the radical political movement.

If we want anarchism to move forward and have an influence on society, we have to get out of the ghetto. Anarchism didn't come out of nowhere, it was born out of class struggle. It came about from the ideas and actions of millions of people fighting for a better world. If the anarchist movement is to remain relevant, it has to be based in, and part of, a mass movement. Last year tens of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose US Imperialism and war. The anti war movement was the first experience of radical politics for most of those people. Yet anarchist ideas had a very low profile. The Anarchist Roundtable in Christchurch was the only organised anarchist group to make an effort to take part in the anti war movement. The Anti GE movement is another example of a movement with mass support, but with almost no visible anarchist involvement. There are various individual anarchists who are heavily involved in these and other campaigns, but my point is these people are involved as individuals and so have very little influence on the direction of the campaign, and most of the people who call themselves anarchists are not involved at all. When I received the advertising posters and leaflets for the recent "Anarchist tea Party" gathering in Wanganui, I was disappointed to see no mention of the current war in Iraq, the anti GE movement, the foreshore/sea bed issue, and other current political issues.

Instead there were workshops on tree climbing, herbal contraception, living outside capitalism (on the moon maybe?) and non monogamous relationships. While I am sure some of this might have been fun and even interesting, it is not going to change the world. And that is what anarchism is about - Changing The World. The poster for the event had a well known quote from anthropologist (and certainly not an anarchist) Margaret Mead - "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has". It's a nice slogan, but it is simply not true. If we are talking about really changing the world, by getting rid of capitalism (and I hope we are), it will not be a small group of citizens, it will be through the efforts of the international working class. This is an important point. Anarchists, by ourselves, will never change the world. The ONLY way to get rid of capitalism is through the actions of millions and millions of working people. The job of anarchists is to take part in mass movements and struggles, alongside ordinary people. In those movements we will come up against both reformists and authoritarian tendencies, and we will have to argue with them and hopefully convince people that anarchist ideas are useful ideas for achieving a better society. Inward looking lifestyle politics will not change the world. It might be fun, but it is a total waste of time. Out there in the real world, our enemy, the ruling class, is busy planning wars, destroying the planet, and exploiting us all. The good news is that people are resisting. Right now, there are thousands of people around the country, interested in how we can change the world and get rid of this sick capitalist system that is giving us wars, genetically modified "food", racism, environmental destruction, low wages and generally making life miserable. These people can be found at anti war meetings, in local anti GE groups, and other political events. The Greens are there too, and the marxists, and the liberals, but the anarchists aren't there, or we are there in very small numbers and are not saying much. If we want to change the world we need to be in the thick of the fight, part of the mass movement and proving that our ideas are relevant and useful to the struggle. It's not enough to organise one or two events a year. We have to set up anarchist groups that meet regularly, discuss politics and take part in local grassroots political campaigns. Only then will anarchist ideas be taken seriously by people fighting for a better world. A good example is the Anarchist Round Table in Christchurch. ART has regular meetings, a written set of aims and principles and takes part in protests and other stuff in Christchurch. This may not sound like much but unfortunately it’s pretty rare in the anarchist movement here for any sort of collective to last more than a few months. If we can't even get ongoing local groups established in the main centres, we are going to have a hard time convincing the rest of the world that we can organise without governments and capitalism! The fact is we are not getting anywhere, and we need to drastically rethink what we are doing. After all, going round and round in circles without getting anywhere does not make you a revolutionary.

[1] Clan McGillicuddy was started by some Hamilton hippies in the 1970s. It's main activity was doing weird street theatre and engaging in pacifist battles (hitting each other with rolled up newspapers and flourbombs). Its political branch, the McGillicuddy Serious Party, ran candidates in general elections to poke fun at the political system. It abolished itself in 2000. Ironically, many of its members now work for the green party.
[2] In hindsight of course, one of the people with a sensible haircut and a collection of Dire Straits CDs, turned out to have been a police informant the entire time. You can read about this repulsive little man here and here.

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