In defence of anarchism and antifascism: a reply to the Winter Oak

In recent months, the subject of the “red-brown” alliance between some leftists and parts of the far-right, especially around their shared fondness for Assad, has attracted increasing attention. As the anti-fascist critique of this alliance has become more prominent, it has also attracted something of a backlash, as some parts of the left wing of the Assadist coalition have insisted that there’s nothing to see here.

The Winter Oak/Acorn, a UK anarchist publishing project, recently dived into the controversy with a pair of articles, apparently guided by an understanding of “anarchism” as being all about unswerving loyalty to the Russian and Syrian governments and automatic defence of Jeremy Corbyn. Rather than treating this as a dispute taking place among different forces on “the left”, the Winter Oak position is to defend the pro-Assad leftists against criticism which they represent as coming from “outside”, from neoliberals and/or the state.

Discussing the recent chemical attacks in Syria, the Winter Oak writer states that “The war-hungry capitalist propaganda machine… has, of course, been relentlessly amplifying the views and narratives of the status quo and giving no platform for dissident opinion – that’s what it’s there for!” This is in itself something of an oversimplification, I think that famous Chomsky quote about “strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views” does a much better job at capturing how giving a certain amount of space for some “dissident opinion” actually makes the whole machine work more smoothly.

More to the point, questioning of Assad’s responsibility for various attacks is entirely within the spectrum of acceptable opinion for some parts of the mainstream media. That’s why Robert Fisk gets to write columns on the subject in the Independent, and Seymour Hersh does the same in the LRB, and Max Blumenthal keeps on getting invited to go on Fox News – or is Fox News not part of the mainstream media anymore?

It is interesting to see some of the voices that the Winter Oak wishes to cast as being somehow not really part of the status quo, as if the likes of Vanessa Beeley (daughter of Sir Harold Beeley, Knight Commander of the St Michael and Saint George, Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Max Blumenthal (son of Sidney Blumenthal, senior advisor to the President in the Clinton White House, and described as “a mitzvah” by Hillary Clinton herself), former UK ambassador Craig Murray and former US attorney Ramsey Clark were not really part of the establishment.

First, the Winter Oak (WO) writer picks up on a BBC article, which wrote about “people who call themselves ‘independent journalists’”, and noted the contradiction of those who “call themselves ‘anti-war’, but… generally back the Syrian government’s military operations…and Russian air strikes carried out in support”. For WO, this is apparently the same as saying that “There is no such thing as an independent journalist or a genuine anti-war activist, only shady agents of sinister foreign forces”. Except, of course, that questioning the applicability of a particular label in a particular case is not the same thing as saying that that label is never applicable to anyone ever.

This is particularly notable because the same writer also wrote “they are not actually anti-fascist… The witch-hunters are themselves part of a pro-war, pro-US, pro-Israel, neoliberal network.” If we apply exactly the same logic that they themselves apply to the BBC article, this would appear to be a statement that there is no such thing as a genuine anti-fascist, only agents of a pro-war, pro-US, pro-Israel, neoliberal network.
For WO, any criticism of the hypocrisy of those who criticise US/UK air strikes while cheering on Russian and Syrian ones equates to “an attempt to completely close down any possibility of dissent”. The option of criticising all powers intervening in the Syrian conflict, and so taking a genuinely internationalist anti-war stance, seems not to have crossed their mind.

Next, WO moves on to the question of antisemitism and the Labour Party, a reasonably complex situation where two different things were true at the same time – that is to say, that there is a real problem that does actually exist, and it was also being exploited and manipulated by reactionary forces. WO gives a simplistic, one-sided take, asserting that “the issue at stake is not actually antisemitism” and “it would work just as well with any allegation against any group.”

They reiterate that the point “is to attack the left using the “antisemitism” angle as the perfect weapon, because of the way that it is so difficult to refute without digging a deeper hole.” But antisemitism wouldn’t be such a perfect weapon if it wasn’t for all the instances of people affiliated with Labour doing and saying things that really don’t help. It’s not really so difficult to refute something that’s got no truth to it, and if there is a kernel of truth to what’s being said, then surely the point should be to address the issue that’s been highlighted, while also combating any distortions or exaggerations of the problem, not just to simply “refute” it in a point-scoring, propagandistic fashion.

To illustrate this, it’s worth examining two different responses to the issue. There was that open letter that described the situation as being the work of “a very powerful special interest group” – this could fairly be described as “digging a deeper hole”, but there’s nothing inevitable about that response, no-one forced the letter’s writers and signatories to use language reminiscent of classic antisemitic conspiracy theories without clarifying exactly what they meant.

On the other hand, there was also the Jewdas response – this also took quite a “defend Corbyn” tone, and Jonathan Arkush did indeed try to use their attitude, along with things like their outspoken criticism of Israel, to try and brand them as being antisemitic. But, crucially, this completely failed to stick, mainstream Jewish figures who are totally at odds with Jewdas came out in their defence, and at the end of it all Jewdas were joking about how the level of support shown for them meant that they’d become the real representatives of the “Jewish community”. This wasn’t just because of them being Jewish, because cranks like Gilad Atzmon and Tony Greenstein also have Jewish heritage; it’s because their political record was clearly one of total opposition to antisemitism, so there was nothing there for the smear to stick to.

If the point needs underlining any further, consider the fact that even Labour Against the Witch Hunt, the group formed specifically to oppose expelling people over allegations of antisemitism, ended up expelling Gerry Downing over allegations of antisemitism. Either we have to accept Downing’s worldview wholesale and accept that Labour Against the Witch Hunt was carrying out a witch hunt, or else it has to be admitted that there is a real problem there.

Next, WO gives a quick overview of pro-war centrists like Norman Geras and Bloodworth – a critique I don’t disagree with, those people are clowns – and then moves on to confusionnisme.info and Ornella Guyet. The swift movement from Geras/Bloodworth/Atoms to Guyet seems intended to suggest a connection, but no actual proof of a link is given. Instead, we just get “She says she is a “libertarian communist”, but in a piece exposing her activities, the left-wing website Le Grand Soir concluded that she was “an opportunist in thrall to the neocolonial and ultra-liberal system”.

It added: “Ornella Guyet claims to be ‘left-wing’, but her work proves the opposite.” It said she uses the cover of anti-fascism to attack genuine opponents of the capitalist system. “In this sense she is the perfect example of the Fake Antifa, a guard dog of power”.”

This article is in French, and so not immediately easy for non-Francophones to fact-check. If we just go by the extracts that WO has translated into English, they prove without a doubt that at least one person on the French left dislikes Guyet, on the grounds that Guyet criticises some people that Le Grand Soir writer likes… and that’s it. The sum total of the English-language evidence presented against Guyet amounts to the fact that someone says she’s bad, and that, heaven forbid, she criticised Jeremy Corbyn – a position that is apparently off-limits to real libertarian communists now. Oh, and the WO writer mentions her immediately after talking about some writers who do genuinely hold pro-war positions, a move that’s apparently meant to associate her with those positions, although no proof is offered to show she actually has such views.

Moving on, WO presents the current discussions among anti-fascists over Third Position/red-brown infiltration as being “centred around the work of Alexander Reid Ross”. In an example of Ross’s supposed hostility to the left, he mentions that Ross “claims that Earth First! has at some times in its history bolstered white supremacism through its appeals to Nordic paganism.” This is a nice summary of the general WO method: a casual reader could easily get the impression that Ross was out to attack Earth First! as a result of some kind of general hostility to it; it takes a bit of background knowledge or research to find out that Ross was in fact the editor of the Earth First! journal for a number of years, and so should be understood as someone with an investment in the movement taking part in an internal debate, not as a hostile critic having a go from the outside.

And presenting the current backlash against red-brown/third position politics as being solely about Ross is missing the point. Other commentators have been issuing the same warnings for years now, as with this critique of Counterpunch that was circulated several years ago, and any discussion of the antifascist response to the red-brown alliance in 2018 surely has to consider the Radical Vagabond piece.

I have no desire to defend everything Ross has ever said, because frankly he gives me careerist vibes and I’m not a big fan of his writing, but to focus on the man himself is kind of a distraction. The intensely detailed, extremely well-sourced Radical Vagabond report is the most important text to consider here, and as that writer, like myself, isn’t out to build any kind of career or radical cred and so writes anonymously, it’s not possible to discredit them through ad hominems, so any consideration of their work has to focus on the actual text, not trying to smear the author. Or, of course, their opponents can just ignore it entirely and focus on Ross.

And if we are going to talk about Ross, probably the most interesting thing about him in recent months was that SPLC article that was suppressed by legal threats from Max Blumenthal’s lawyers. Again, there may well be valid criticisms to make of the actual content of Ross’ article, as well as his decision to publish it with the SPLC; but those criticisms should be made openly, so readers can judge and make up their own minds, and Blumenthal’s decision to instead use legal threats to try and hide the article entirely was absolutely shameful. And, by passing over this whole question in silence, WO is implicitly siding with Fox News, Max Blumenthal and his lawyers, and so with the whole weight of the state apparatus – a funny position for an anarchist to take.

Discussing Ross’s writing, WO objects that “the term “anti-imperialist” has been placed in scare quotes, as if this political position didn’t actually exist!” Again, if we reflect this same level of scrutiny back on WO’s own writing, we can find them putting scare quotes around “fascist”, “anti-semitic”, and “leftist”, so apparently these things don’t actually exist either. And, of course, a lot of the time “anti-imperialism” really doesn’t exist, at least in any meaningful sense, as the term generally tends to be used by those who object to some imperialisms, but then roll out every “fighting Islamist terror” and “actually, they were invited to intervene by the legitimate government” cliché in the book to excuse others. Someone who opposes US and UK imperialism, but is fine with Russian or Iranian imperialism, cannot be meaningfully called “anti-imperialist” any more than someone who disbelieves in Allah, Thor, Krishna and Vishnu, but worships Christ, is an atheist, or a person who abstains from pork and chicken but eats beef is a vegetarian, so the scare quotes are entirely justified.

WO says that Ross’ argument is nonsense, because “The fact that some far-rightists oppose war on Syria does not invalidate left-wing opposition to the attacks, any more than the fact that some far-rightists support Palestinian rights and criticise Israel means that leftists should stop criticising Israel”. That’s true as far as it goes, because the fact of happening to share an opinion with the far-right doesn’t in itself invalidate anything, it’s the concrete political co-operation with the far-right – the shared conferences, the willingness to treat Patrick Henningsen’s 21st Century Wire or Global Research as a legitimate source, the inviting them to do radio interviews, etc – that undermines some left-wing opponents of the attacks, just as it’s fine for leftists to criticise Israel, but there would be a problem if they worked directly with fascists in organisations along the lines of the IAC or whatever.

WO objects to “Self-proclaimed anti-fascist Alexander Reid Ross… complaining about “Labour’s tepid response” to the alleged gas attack in Douma and its “rejection of any humanitarian grounds for military action””, saying he sounds more like “a right-wing neoliberal war hawk”. Of course, historically speaking there have been many anti-fascists who’ve supported various wars, that’s one of the limitations of using it as an identity or a label, but more to the point, while I have no wish to defend Ross’s phrasing, I don’t believe Ross being wrong on this issue discredits all of anti-fascism – this is, ironically, exactly the guilt-by-association logic that WO complains about and claims to oppose.

We then get a lengthy digression about how Ross quoted one Caroline O, who apparently has some dodgy neoliberal/establishment connections, and how this means that Ross is “nakedly working with the same people promoting” the US state’s agenda. But that’s a lot to hang on a single quote, so again we’re dealing with guilt by association here, as if all critics of the red-brown alliance can be discredited by virtue of Ross quoting someone.

Warming to their theme, WO adds that “it’s clear that the aim behind Alexander Reid Ross’s book Against the Fascist Creep was not to counter actual fascism, nor even to warn the left of the dangers of fascist infiltration, but to attack and undermine anti-capitalism by claiming its beliefs are tainted with fascist associations”, which is just froth. Again, I’m certainly not saying Ross and his work are beyond criticism, but if we’re making judgements about his motives, then it’s worth taking his entire CV into consideration – are we to conclude that his time spent working on the Earth First journal, his anthology of “essays against the global land grab” (featuring Chomsky, a WO-approved “proper anarchist” figure), his contributions to the scott crow anthology on community defense and the Life During Wartime anthology on resisting counter-insurgency, all of that was also written with the aim of attacking and undermining anti-capitalism? Or was the plan to work on the Earth First! journal and newswire in 2009-2011 with the aim of softening people up and getting them to lower their guards so no-one would suspect a thing when he launched a dastardly project of saying that you shouldn’t work with fascists in 2017-18?

And what about the publishers, AK Press, and all the other anti-fascist/anti-capitalist outlets that have given Ross space or favourable coverage – are they in on the plan to undermine anti-capitalism, or mere dupes who’ve been taken in by Ross’s sinister plan to say that you shouldn’t work with fascists?

WO talks about how the “real problem faced by anarchists and anti-capitalists is… ideological sabotage” and “these attempts to cripple the cohesion, credibility and effectiveness of genuine anti-capitalism, anarchism and anti-imperialism”. I honestly can’t see why anything they discuss should be seen as a problem for anarchists in particular – perhaps members of the Labour Party, or the Assad or Putin fan clubs, might have cause to take offence, but one of the main defining features of anarchism is its refusal, in contrast to much of the left, to fawn over any popular Absolute Boy or military strongman who seems to offer the possibility of wielding state power. So there’s no need for us to react as if criticisms of fascist-sympathising Assad supporters were somehow intended to undermine us – I’m all in favour of “an injury to one is an injury to all”, but treating attacks on the Syrian state and its lackeys as being attacks on “genuine anarchism” seems to be taking that principle a bit too far.

In response to this supposed attack, WO writes that “We also need to talk about what it is we really believe in, what we are hoping for, how we define ourselves in relation to Western capitalist modernity and the global neoliberal military-industrial-prison complex”. This seems sound enough, especially because I think that talking about “what it is we really believe in” can only help to underline the distinction between anarchists and the red-brown Assadist crowd. In passing, I’d also note that there’s a big difference between talking about “Western capitalist modernity” and “the global neoliberal military-industrial-prison complex” – the former seems designed to leave open space for a defence of Russian or Chinese capitalism as somehow superior, the latter is much clearer about the scale of the enemy we face.

They continue that “We need to talk honestly and seriously, ignoring the ideological smears”, which seems a bit odd, as surely talking honestly and seriously is not really compatible with ignoring people who say inconvenient things that you don’t like. If there are ideological smears being thrown around, then surely it’s worth engaging with their content and actually refuting them, not just ignoring them or using lawyers to silence them.

They continue that we should be “alert to the possibility that we may inadvertently find ourselves voicing the same views on specific issues as people whose general politics we do not appreciate”. This is always a possibility on any issue – it’s a point I keep returning to, but I don’t think that everyone who voted leave in the EU referendum should be seen as being in league with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, or that every remainer can be blamed for the horrors of Frontex and the European Central Bank. There is a world of difference between this sort of trivial, non-substantiative agreement and Brian Becker inviting any scumbag he can find on his radio show, or Vanessa Beeley writing in praise of Orban on a website run by Infowars/Red Ice fascist Patrick Henningsen, or Max Blumenthal going on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show… or the Winter Oak feeling the need to jump to the defence of the above.

Concluding the first article, they offer “To combat this, we need to state clearly where we stand. We at Winter Oak, for example, place ourselves firmly and proudly in the anti-fascist tradition. We are committed to its values of internationalism, equality, solidarity, mutual aid, anti-militarism, anti-sexism and anti-racism and we will never work with anyone who does not at least share these basic values. If we all adhere to similar principles, we have no reason to fear the toxic smears coming from the likes of Ross.”

This is actually really good, and important, and exactly what the likes of Ross, Vagabond and so on have been arguing all along. But what’s jarring here is the contrast between these lofty principles and the people that WO sets out to defend – can the likes of Vanessa Beeley, or Patrick Henningsen, or Max Blumenthal, or Bill Moran, or Brian Becker, really, honestly say that “We… place ourselves firmly and proudly in the anti-fascist tradition. We are committed to its values of internationalism, equality, solidarity, mutual aid, anti-militarism, anti-sexism and anti-racism and we will never work with anyone who does not at least share these basic values”? And if not, why this rush to defend them?

The second article on the same theme continues where the first left off, warning of “a bid to destroy anarchist and anti-capitalist coherency and effectiveness by infiltrating and undermining its thinking”. Again, I’m confused about where this supposed “bid to destroy anarchism” is meant to be playing out, seeing as most of the examples cited seem to be criticism of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. If we’re talking about destroying anarchist coherency and effectiveness by undermining our thinking, it’s hard to imagine anything that could do that better than a version of “anarchism” so defanged and declawed that we can never make criticisms of the Labour Party.

Repeating their criticism of the anti-fascist campaign which they see as a witch hunt, WO writes that “it condemns others as being somehow right-wing, reactionary or, increasingly, “anti-semitic”.” But there’s no attempt made to engage with the actual content of these claims – there’s very good reasons why, for instance, Red Ice, Jim Saleam of the Australian Nazi Party, Alberto Garcia Watson, and Charles Bausman are considered antisemitic, and so why those folk like Henningsen, Anderson, Becker and Blumenthal who swim in their sewers are seen as deeply suspect.

Apparently the anti-fascist backlash is in fact directed at “anyone who is critical of the neoliberal system and its imperial wars”, a claim which is simply untrue. For a measure of just how untrue it is, we can take a look at the No War But the Class War initiative which is currently being set up. Now, it’s a very new project, so it hasn’t attracted much in the way of any kind of reaction yet, but if anyone seriously associated with the current anti-fascist backlash tries calling it antisemitic, red-brown, pro-Russian, Assadist, or anything similar, I’ll eat my hat. Certainly, genuinely anti-war projects like No War But the Class War tend to have a lower profile than the likes of Beeley and Blumenthal, because there’s no cushy Fox News or Russia Today spots that go with internationalist politics, but more to the point, no-one would seriously try making those claims because there’s no evidence to back them up – in sharp contrast to the huge mass of painstakingly assembled evidence which shows that the likes of Henningsen and Anderson are in up to their necks in a very dodgy swamp indeed.

Or again, to refute this claim, we could just turn to the conclusion of the massive Vagabond article, the document that WO is so keen to ignore, where they declare “we can fight against imperialism, against racism, and against fascism at the same time, and we can oppose the American war machine and oppose colonialism without siding with reactionary and oppressive entities” – which hardly seems like the words of someone who opposes “anyone who is critical of the neoliberal system and its imperial wars”.

Again and again, WO repeats the claim that the “red-brown” charge is directed at “anyone who opposes” the neoliberal centre, at “the anti-capitalist left” and so on. But this is untrue, and only works if you decide that anyone not linked to the red-brown Assadist milieu is not really an anti-capitalist.

After making the same assertions over and over again without considering any evidence, WO finally moves on to some specifics, in the form of the recent Daphne Lawless series on the “red-brown zombie plague”. As it happens, I had my own criticisms of that series of writings, particularly the first article, because I think there are some places where she slips into a kind of “campist”, “my enemy’s enemy” mindset that does lead her to uncritically repeat some neoliberal assumptions; but overall, despite all my criticisms of Lawless, I don’t think there’s anything like sufficient evidence to back up the WO characterisation of her as “part of a pro-war, pro-US, pro-Israel, neoliberal network… attacking their targets not from the left but from the right”.

For a start, if we’re going to decide whether WO is justified in saying that this “supposed left-winger” is in fact a neoliberal, then again, as with Ross, some consideration of her past CV, and indeed that of Fightback, would be relevant. As far as I can tell, she, and they, seem to be genuine trots; one can, and should, criticise trots for being trots, but engaging with the positions they actually defend seems more worthwhile than just making ones up and claiming that they hold them. (EDIT: As pointed out in the comments below, Fightback would describe themselves as being more “an eclectic Marxist/anti-capitalist group” rather than strictly in the Trotskyist tradition.)

Moving towards a discussion of what Lawless actually says, WO notes that “Lawless approvingly quotes an attack on anti-Americanism by Moishe Postone, the Canadian “leftist” who is regarded as a major inspiration for the antideutsch movement, that bizarre pro-US, pro-Israel, pseudo-leftist German political movement.” Again, this is pure guilt-by-association stuff, proving absolutely nothing – there are Ukrainian nationalists who claim to be inspired by Makhno, and plenty of people who approvingly quote Marx, the thinker who is regarded as a major inspiration for Stalin and the Khmer Rouge. We don’t automatically write off anyone who quotes Marx or Makhno, and so if you want to prove that Postone (or anyone else) is so dodgy that anyone who cites him is automatically suspect, you need to actually engage with what Postone said and show what’s wrong with it. Just saying “these people are dodgy and they like Postone”, as if that proved anything at all about Postone and anyone who quotes him, genuinely is the kind of smearing that WO supposedly opposes.

Next up on the WO list of reasons why us “genuine anarchists and anti-capitalists” should be suspicious of Lawless is her supposed “obsession with Syria, Russia and “the Iranian mullahs””. Apparently, no matter how many civilians they bomb, how many anarchists and anti-fascists they torture, how fiercely workers’ struggles come into conflict with the state, criticism of these states is off-limits. At the risk of sounding like I’m stuck in 2013, it’s hard not to respond with “much anarchism, very anti-state, wow.”

Next on the list of Lawless’ crimes is her “quoting of the views of Alexander Reid Ross, Jonathan Freedland, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leil al-Shami” – again, since the only actual evidence WO has presented against any of these four people is that Ross once quoted someone who has dodgy links, the attempted guilt-by-association doesn’t really work here either. Just putting Yassin-Kassab and al-Shami’s names in the same list as Jonathan Freedland is not a substitute for showing that there’s any substantial crossover between them.

Next up, the anarchists at Winter Oak are horrified by her “dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, Noam Chomsky, Vanessa Beeley, Jill Stein, Max Blumenthal, Caitlin Johnstone, Roger Waters…” It would be worth going through these one by one, with particular reference to the grand claims made about how “We are committed to its values of internationalism, equality, solidarity, mutual aid, anti-militarism, anti-sexism and anti-racism and we will never work with anyone who does not at least share these basic values”. Is that really how to characterise, say, Vanessa Beeley’s address to the British Constitutional Group? Or Caitlin Johnstone’s call to work with Mike Cernovich?

WO summarises Lawless’ worldview as one where “The “bad guys” are anyone who criticises the US empire and the “good guys” are all the cloned corporate hacks who furiously condemn them as “red-brown” pro-Russian fascists for daring to do so.” But again, this is nonsense – look at the No War But the Class War project, a genuinely anarchist anti-war initiative that is openly critical of the US empire. Again, it’s early days yet, but I will be astounded if anyone attempts to condemn them as red-brown or pro-Russian, because there’s clearly no evidence to support that charge, unlike the inhabitants of the actual red-brown Assadist milieu.

And are Yassin-Kassab or al-Shami really corporate hacks? What about Vagabond, or Élise Hendrick? More so, than, say, Blumenthal’s mate Tucker Carlson?

Next, WO returns to the antisemitism question, citing an article by Jonathan Cook as proof of how false claims of antisemitism are allegedly “being used to vilify all direct opposition to the capitalist system.”

The difficulty here is that the Jonathan Cook article is pretty bad. Specifically, a large part of Cook’s article is taken up with a defence of a cartoon of Netanyahu that was accused of antisemitism. Cook writes “There is no implication that Netanyahu represents “Jews”, or even Israelis. He is illustrated straightforwardly as the leader of a country, Israel.” Except that Netanyahu is shown uttering the phrase “next year in Jerusalem”, which anyone with a basic knowledge of the Jewish religion will recognise as being a key part of the Seder night ritual. The roles played by things like “zion”, “yisroel”, and Jerusalem in Jewish religious language make neat distinctions tricky here, but it’s nonsense to say that “There is no implication that Netanyahu represents “Jews””, when he’s shown in the act of saying a phrase that any observant Jew – or even any non-observant Jew who’s close to their family – would also say.

It’s not a perfect comparison, because no two situations are ever exactly alike, but one comparison might be the way that, while there are countless good reasons to criticise the Sinn Fein leadership, a cartoon that reacted to a Sinn Fein scandal by showing a SF politician saying “bless me Father, for I have sinned” might be seen as playing on anti-catholic sentiment.

Being charitable, we can say that perhaps Cook has never acquired a basic level of familiarity with the Jewish religion, and so could have sincerely missed the significance of “next year in Jerusalem”; but in that case, perhaps he’d best refrain from lecturing Jews about what does and doesn’t constitute antisemitism in future.

Moving on, Cook stresses the danger of false antisemitism claims, saying that they “empowered Labour’s Blairite bureaucracy to publicly lynch a well-known black anti-racism activist, Marc Wadsworth”. This is a frankly astonishing turn of phrase, and if Cook thinks it’s appropriate to talk about someone being expelled from the Labour Party as if a racist murder had taken place, then it further confirms my suspicion that he is really not a reliable source on questions around racism at all.

WO approvingly cites Cook as saying “It is an indication of how quickly this slippage is occurring that repeating now a slogan of the Occupy Movement from only seven years ago – that we are ruled by a ‘global elite’, or the ‘1 per cent’ – is cited as proof of anti-semitism”, but to talk about this as if it was a new development, and the “1%” concept was unquestioned anti-capitalist common sense seven years ago, just shows Cook’s, and WO’s ignorance. The language of the 99% and 1% was subject to a lot of critical discussion at the time, with, for instance, Spencer Sunshine writing in Shift Magazine way back in 2011 about the way that the ambiguity of “the 1%” was allowing fascists and antisemites to attempt to infiltrate the movement:

“For antisemites, the elites are the Jews; for David Icke, the elites are the reptilians; for nationalists, they are members of minority ethnic, racial, or religious groups; for others, they are the “globalists,” the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, the Freemasons, the Federal Reserve, etc. All of these various conspiracy theories also tend to blend in and borrow from each other… All participants might rightly see themselves as part of the 99%. The real divisive question will then be, who do they think the 1% are?”

Cook, and WO, then proceed to get irate about a New Statesman article by Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts that criticised Corbyn. Again, I have no desire to defend the New Statesman, and am happy to agree that anti-capitalists should give the scummy liberal rag a wide berth, but I’m very confused by the way that the anarchists of Winter Oak seem to see any criticism of Corbyn’s worldview as being inherently off-limits. I’m as happy as anyone else to see the New Statesman bashed, but if you’re going to criticise a specific article, then you should examine the actual arguments made on their own strengths.

Instead of actually engaging with Bolton and Pitts’ ideas, WO just goes for another cack-handed attempt at guilt-by-association, pointing out that they quote “None other than Daphne Lawless’s hero, the late Moishe Postone.” But pointing out that people cite Postone is only damning if you’ve first proved that Postone is actually bad, which WO has resoundingly failed to do. Nowhere have they even quoted a single word of one of Postone’s arguments, much less demolished them. In contrast, here’s the actual crux of Bolton and Pitt’s “insidious argument”, which is apparently designed to undermine proper real anti-capitalism, as represented by Corbyn:

“Postone’s alternative reading of Marx shows us that a critique of capitalism which focuses only on the machinations of the “1 per cent” fails to understand how fundamentally capitalist social relations shape the way in which we live – capitalists and bankers included. It does not grasp the extent to which “real” industrious production and intangible “abstract” finance are inextricably entwined. The pursuit of profit is not a choice in capitalism, but a compulsion. Failing to do so leads to bankruptcy, starvation and death. Nor are banks and the international financial sector an unproductive parasitical outgrowth undermining the vitality of the “real” national economy. They are that economy’s precondition.”

Wrapping up their attempted smear-job against anti-capitalists and anti-fascists, WO concludes that the Bolton/Pitts argument is one where “if you don’t want to be called an anti-semite and a red-brown fascist… you will have to “radically revise” your anti-capitalism so that it suits the neoliberal fake-left agenda. You will have to say that capitalism is not a rigged system, that a tiny elite ruling class does not hold all the wealth and power, that Israel is not a militaristic apartheid state, that the USA is not a warmongering imperial capitalist menace to the rest of the world.”

But as we’ve seen, actually paying attention to the articles that WO wants to condemn shows that they’re not against criticisms of capitalism, but that they specifically want to take aim at a “morally-charged, personalised critique of capitalism as conspiracy”. Is this really what WO wants to fight to defend? And does this mean that everyone who’s argued for an understanding of capitalism as a system driven by economic logic rather than a conspiracy of greedy bankers – off the top of my head, the likes of Fredy Perlman, Gilles Dauve, prole.info and Kampa Tillsammans all come to mind – are now to be dismissed as part of the neoliberal fake-left agenda?

In attempting to defend “genuine anarchism and anti-capitalism” from the alleged neoliberal offensive, the Winter Oak seems willing to ditch everything that makes anarchism distinctive, meaningful or coherent. Out goes anti-statism and an understanding of the structural constraints that make the state an unsuitable vehicle for the changes that we want to see; in comes a blind loyalty to Corbyn instead. Out with an understanding of capitalism and imperialism as genuinely global systems; in with a demonization of the US and Israel as being uniquely evil, a stance that inherently normalises every other state, and leaves the path wide open to a “lesser evil” defence of any other ruler the US comes into conflict with.

I’m sure that the Winter Oak writer genuinely believes that they’re defending anarchism by jumping to the defence of anyone on the left accused of antisemitism or collaboration with fascists; but looking at how much they’ve had to discard in the way of basic anarchist principles, just in order to mount a defence of Max Blumenthal and Vanessa Beeley, I can’t help being reminded of that famous line from the Vietnam war: apparently Winter Oak think it’s necessary to destroy anarchism in order to save it.

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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 Anarchists, Bit more thinky, Debate, Racism, The left, The right and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to In defence of anarchism and antifascism: a reply to the Winter Oak

  1. Daphne says:

    Ha ha, can I just note:

    1) Fightback is not a Trot group, but an eclectic Marxist/anti-capitalist group. I myself came from the British SWP’s “kinda-sorta-Trot” position, but I would probably now call myself a libertarian communist who is sympathetic to anarchist arguments and agnostic on the whole tradition of Bolshevism. Other Fightback comrades come from Maoist or even pro-Cuba traditions, we only unite on the basis of our programme.

    2) The smearing of supporters of the Syrian Revolution as “Zionist” is crazy. If you read authors such as S. C. Hamad or R. Yassin-Kassab, you will see that they rail against Israeli outrages in Gaza just as strongly as they do against Assadist/Russian/Iranian outrages in Syria. I quote Sam Hamad in my article as pointing out, for example, that it’s wrong for Western leftists who have no real problems with Islamist groups such as Hamas in Palestine to go full “War On Terror” about Islamist groups in the Free Syrian forces. This just reflects WO’s position – which has much more to do with Maoism / the American “New Communist Movement” than any kind of anarchism – that “Western/US/EU imperialism” is the main or even the only real enemy.

    • 1) Hah, fair enough on that one – in my defence, there was a lot of stuff I needed to research and factcheck for this article, so I can’t say I looked that deeply into Fightback’s background. I think the point that there’s not really much evidence to characterise your positions as “part of a pro-war, pro-US, pro-Israel, neoliberal network” still stands, though.

      2) Yep, I guess any exchange between us will be sort of preaching to the converted on this point, and I’m sure you’re aware of the arguments that have been made by people like Budour Hassan, Joey Ayoub, Mohammed Suliman and so on. I didn’t screenshot it at the time, and it’d probably take a bit of digging to find now, but I did see a recentish post by Beeley that was along the lines of “people criticise Assad for bombing civilians, but how else can you fight terrorist groups that embed themselves among civilian populations?” and I was impressed by how perfectly it echoed the arguments you hear coming from actual pro-IDF people. And, of course, the devastation of Yarmouk adds another layer of sick irony as the regime these people are defending actively bombed Palestinian refugees.
      Seeing the Acorn/Winter Oak put that stuff out was a real “zombie plague” moment for me, because I’d been aware of the Acorn as a project for a while, and vaguely thought of it as being perhaps a little bit more eco-activisty/summit protest-oriented than I am, but never had any serious problems with it before, and I only found those articles while looking up their coverage of the latest G20-connected raids – really weird to see something that I’d always thought of as a totally innocuous (probably a bad word to use for anarchists, but you know what I mean!) anarchist project coming out with what’s effectively state propaganda.

  2. Pingback: Does opposing U.S. imperialism and wars mean you’re not really an anarchist? | winter oak

  3. Pingback: If saying it’s a bad idea to work with fascists makes you a pro-war neoliberal, then who was phone? More on red-brown alliances, smears and all that | Cautiously pessimistic

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