Write to your MP today: Thoughts on anarchists and mass movements

So, in contrast to a lot of my posts, this one definitely doesn’t claim to have any answers, it’s just raising some questions that I think need to be thought about.
To give a bit of personal context, from the time I first became involved in the anarchist movement up to the start of the current anti-cuts struggle, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to build specifically anarchist projects, or groups that didn’t call themselves anarchists but were “anti-capitalist and non-hierarchical”, and so had a membership comprised of anarchists and people who didn’t like the term “anarchist” but basically were. It was never the only thing I was doing, but it was certainly a high priority. At the same time, on a theoretical level I was always very conscious of the need to be outward-looking and talk to people who didn’t already agree with us; to steal a term, “to be the anarchist wing of the workers’ movement, not the workerist wing of the anarchist movement.” But, in practice, working in specifically anarchist circles is, in some ways, easier and less challenging; and besides, between the decline of the movement against the Iraq War and the rise of the student movement last year, I’m not really sure there were any genuine mass movements that anarchists could have got involved in. The closest thing I can think of is the climate change movement, but that never really broke out of its own specific activist ghetto. Now, however, I’m focused mainly on working with anti-cuts groups in my area, and there’s a whole different set of challenges.
To start off with, there’s the temptation, as discussed in this piece about anarchist strike support in New Zealand, just to avoid identifying yourself as an anarchist altogether. Related to that, there’s a second syndrome, whereby if you do “come out” as an anarchist, you then find yourself needing to demonstrate that you’re one of the “good” anarchists, not one of the “bad” ones. You almost certainly know what the “bad” anarchist is like: they’re the ones you’ll find endless warnings against in both the mainstream media and the socialist papers, the mindless thugs who have no real interest in politics or trying to build campaigns but just want to wreck everything. Regardless of whether this creature actually exists or not, when I’m involved in a broad campaign I still feel the need to prove that I’m not one of them, by working hard for the group and generally not making a fuss. Starting lots of arguments is certainly one of the things that “the bad anarchist” would be expected to do; unfortunately, it’s also quite a necessary thing to do a lot of the time.
As an anarchist in an anti-cuts group, or any similar campaign, it’s impossible to avoid noticing the amount of basic assumptions that I disagree with: not just the vague, abstract issues like other people inexplicably not wanting to abolish the state and wage labour, but practical issues that genuinely affect the day-to-day functioning of the campaign. To take just a few relevant examples, I believe that, at a meeting or other public event, it’s better to have a speaker who lives and works in the area and actually experiences the reality of working-class life than to have a politician or union bureaucrat, no matter how high profile, who won’t actually be affected by the cuts at all. I think that politicians are not basically neutral or looking out for us, and so writing to them is pointless. I think a lot of people’s experiences of both work and the welfare state are very negative, and so a perspective that acknowledges this, but still insists that fighting back against the government’s attempts to make them worse is the first step towards actually making them better, will have more appeal than simplistic shit like “the Right to Work”. I think that Labour, if they were in power, would be doing a lot of the same things that the Tories are now, so making alliances with the Labour Party to defeat the Tories is utterly pointless. And that’s before I even get started on the unions.
Clearly, it’s necessary to have discussions about these things. But when? At open organising meetings, which take place specifically to sort out practical matters, starting an argument about the anti-working class nature of the Labour Party can make you look like you’re just trying to waste everyone’s time. This is more difficult for anarchists than it is for Trotskyists and other species of bureaucrat, since the preferred Leninist approach to dealing with controversial issues is to set up a steering committee, make sure you have enough people on it, and then sort out all the difficult issues out behind closed doors. For anarchists, this isn’t an option, so there’s no shortcut around the very difficult task of trying to make most of the other campaigners agree with you. But, until that happens, you’re left with the choice of either taking your toys and going home, or actively putting your efforts into building events that promote deluded, and ultimately dangerous, liberal/social-democratic ideas. And just saying that the correct thing to do is to “argue for anarchist ideas inside the campaign” is perfectly good in theory, but it can’t cover all the difficult situations you’ll encounter in practice: what, for instance, about a campaign against the closure of a specific workplace, or the cutting of a specific service, where everyone else involved knows each other from their work or through the service, and you’re the outsider politico barging in and trying to tell them what they should be doing? I’d say that, in those situations, it’s worth being sensitive to the context and trying to be as supportive as possible, but how far should we support people in struggle when their focus is on futile forms of action like lobbying MPs?
As I said at the start, I’m not really sure what the answer is. Obviously, local context matters a lot: if you’re in an area with a strong tradition of libertarian organising, and there are a decent number of anarchists who regularly help out with the campaign and show up to the meetings, you’ll find it easier to get a hearing for your arguments than if you’re isolated. But pointing that out isn’t really a solution, since there’s not necessarily an easy way to move from being isolated to being part of a group (although the national federations can provide some support here).
Closing notes: as well as the article from New Zealand mentioned above, Phil Dickens and the Commune have both written on similar topics. And, unrelated to the rest of my post but still heartening, Cambridge ATOS has been occupied again.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Activism, Anarchists, Bit more thinky, Protests, The left and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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