The Winter Oak has now replied to my article criticising their smear jobs against antifascists. Since positions are fairly entrenched by this point, with both of us feeling that we’re being wildly misrepresented by the other, it’s not clear how much further the discussion can go from this point; but, for what it’s worth, here’s an attempt at setting the record straight, as I see it.
To begin at the beginning: the headline and opening question, “Does opposing US imperialism and wars mean you’re not really an anarchist?” is clearly a total distortion, which bears no resemblance to my actual argument. Throughout the previous piece, I was at pains to make it clear that I also oppose US imperialism and wars. That’s why I recommended “criticising all powers intervening in the Syrian conflict, and so taking a genuinely internationalist anti-war stance”; repeatedly made positive mentions of “genuinely anti-war projects like No War But the Class War” and “the No War But the Class War project, a genuinely anarchist anti-war initiative that is openly critical of the US empire”; and approvingly quoted the Vagabond piece’s conclusion that “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”.
So, does opposing US imperialism and wars mean you’re not really an anarchist? No, and no-one, myself included has ever tried to make such a claim; on the other hand, confining one’s critique to “US imperialism and wars”, and US imperialism and wars only, does look a bit dodgy.
In another bizarre piece of attempted amalgamation, the Winter Oak writer attempts to align me with a mindset where no-one “could have moral objections to bombing civilians, shooting unarmed protesters or destroying the environment with fracking – anyone voicing such opinions must obviously be working for Putin or Assad.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how I, or indeed any anti-fascist critic of the red-brown trend, can be considered to be pro-fracking. As for bombing civilians and shooting unarmed protesters, that’s the whole point. If you object to those things, you object to them consistently; but if you object to them sometimes, and are happy to cheer them on or ignore them at other times, then people are going to ask questions about your sincerity; and if the times that you’re happy to turn a blind eye to them happen to align neatly with when they’re carried out by the Syrian or Russian states, then you can hardly blame people for coming to some unpleasant conclusions.
Next, WO picks up the theme of smearing critics as being “neoliberal imperialists [hiding] behind an apparently left-wing, anti-fascist identity”, saying that they have no idea who I am. To which: yes and no, obviously not many people know my IRL identity, that’s the whole point of writing anonymously, but it’s very easy to see that I’m someone who’s spent the best part of a decade consistently covering workplace, anti-austerity and anti-repression struggles from an anarchist perspective. At the risk of sounding petty, it’s definitely the case that the Winter Oak are aware of my previous writings, as they’ve actually chosen to signal boost them on a number of times in the past – for which I am grateful, as I always am whenever anyone finds anything useful in my writings – and they clearly didn’t think that there was anything particularly neoliberal or imperialist about my perspective on those occasions.
Of course, nothing is impossible, and strange things happen all the time, so there’s no way I can prove definitively that I’m not actually a secret neoliberal imperialist – perhaps even Tony Blair himself, why not? – who’s spent a number of years writing about rank-and-file organising among cleaners, construction workers and inmates just as a way to build up my cover so people will be taken in when I launch my dastardly attack of saying that it’s a bad idea to cooperate with fascists, just as it’s technically possible that Alexander Reid Ross might be an undercover Pentagon agent who spent the years 2009-2011 working on the Earth First! journal to build up credibility so people would be taken in when he said that Max Blumenthal and Vanessa Beeley were dodgy in 2017-2018. Perhaps. But, in the absence of really compelling evidence to the contrary, I think it’s fair to say that the balance of probabilities is against those things being true.
Continuing with the attempt to try and make me into a pro-war imperialist, the WO writer claims that I “suggest that being an anarchist is somehow incompatible with opposing imperialism”. Which is not what I said at all: certainly, being an anarchist is incompatible with selectively opposing some imperialist powers and then tacitly supporting others, but that position hardly counts as “opposing imperialism”.
Rather than engaging with my actual argument – that being against imperialism means being against all imperialist powers, not criticising some of them and then being silent on others, or even actively supporting them as the Beeleyite crowd do – they choose to make up a position and attribute it to me, claiming that I argue “If you oppose empires… you must support nation-states. Therefore you are a statist and not really an anarchist at all.” A stupid position, certainly, but not one that I’ve ever actually argued.
The Winter Oak writer continues that “A lot of the article makes no sense at all. It seems to be aimed at people who are not actually going to read the whole thing, but will just skim through”. At this point, the exchange is in danger of degenerating to “no u/nuh uh/yes way” levels, so I’ll just say that it would be nice if they could provide examples of specific passages that they had difficulty understanding so I could attempt to clear up their confusion.
They accuse me of failing “to recognise the difference between mentioning somebody… and actually being a political supporter or associate of that person”. This seems a bit rich considering how much they themselves hang on very shaky pieces of guilt-by-association like Ross mentioning Catherine O or Daphne Lawless mentioning Moshe Postone.
Next, the WO writer returns to the question of Corbyn and whether or not it’s permissible to criticise our saviour JC. WO first says that there are “pro-US, Blairite neoliberals, some of whom pretend they are attacking [Corbyn] from the left, when they are really doing so from the right”, and then adds that this “does not mean that we always leap to an “automatic defence of Jeremy Corbyn”, or that criticising Corbyn is “off-limits” for us.”
But there’s the thing: declaring a general willingness to criticise Corbyn in abstract terms means absolutely nothing if, in practice, any specific left criticism of Corbyn can always be ruled out of bounds by simply declaring that the critic is really a secret Blairite neoliberal.
The WO writer complains that I “mix up what [they] have said with what other people have said. Readers not paying attention could end up imagining that [they] were somehow involved in the internal Labour Party controversies, for instance, or that [they] had expressed some kind of support for Assad or Putin.”
I certainly did a bit of filling in the blanks, but that was necessary due to the WO’s silences on some important matters. It’s true that they hadn’t actively expressed support for Assad or Putin, but those two articles seemed to combine a lack of any criticism towards the Russian or Syrian states, venomous hostility to anyone on the left who does voice criticisms, and then favourable mentions of Assadist propagandists like Vanessa Beeley*, all of which can be combined to form a picture, and not a particularly flattering one.
Similarly, WO denies having been “somehow involved in the internal Labour Party controversies”, but their articles did clearly take a side in those controversies: when Labour Party members have been discussing how to deal with antisemitism in their movement, to respond by insisting “the issue at stake is not actually antisemitism” is to intervene in those discussions, siding with cranks like Gerry Downing and Tony Greenstein and against those who want to neutralise those cranks.
But if I’ve got WO’s views wrong when trying to fill in the blanks left by their silences, now would be the ideal time to clear the whole mess up and set the record straight. For starters, they might want to explain what it is that they actually think about Tim Anderson, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick Henningsen, Brian Becker, Tucker Carlson and Max Blumenthal.
Instead of clearing the air on any of those subjects, WO returns to their dislike of Alexander Reid Ross, insisting that his opinions on Syria don’t have “any place on the left to which Ross claims to belong… Ross is attacking [Corbyn] from a right-wing pro-war position, complaining that Corbyn is not going along with the “bomb Syria” policies promoted by the UK Conservative Party and the US government.”
Ignoring the fact that the US and UK have actually been bombing ISIS-held areas of Syria for years, with minimal response from the so-called anti-war movement, this is another example of the WO tendency to try and reframe debates happening within “the left” as being attacks on “the left” from hostile outsiders. If Ross actually supports US/UK military action against the Syrian state, then that certainly means I have a serious disagreement with him on an important issue, but does that mean he’s not part of “the left”? I honestly don’t know, I don’t think “the left” is a particularly coherent or well-defined category and so I don’t really rely on it that much, but certainly, if I were to declare that everyone I have a serious disagreement on an important issue with was expelled from the left, there wouldn’t be many people remaining.**
Coming to the heart of the disagreement, the WO writer asks why I think “that criticising Alexander Reid Ross is an attempt to discredit anti-fascism”. So, to be clear about this: I think the basic anti-fascist position, that we should be wary of fascists and racists attempting to exploit and manipulate us, and that we should reject any attempts to work with them, is a sound principle and should be upheld. In contrast, WO seems to believe that anyone who voices this idea is a pro-war Blairite neoliberal out to attack the left, accusing us of trying “to contaminate genuine anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism with an unsavoury odour of antisemitism or a “red-brown” form of fascism”, calling “the “red-brown” smear” “an assault on the left” coming from people who “are not actually anti-fascist” but instead acting “in the interests of right-wing neoliberalism”. And so on and so on.
Rather than trying to rebut the anti-fascist critique of red-brown alliances by looking at the specific claims made by anti-fascists and refuting them, WO seems to hang their entire argument on their dislike of Alexander Reid Ross – hence the question about whether or not Ross being wrong about some things is sufficient to discredit all of anti-fascism, or at least all of the anti-fascist critique of red-brown alliances.
Because, contrary to the picture painted by WO’s writings, anti-fascist opposition to co-operation with the far-right is not something new, a neoliberal attack on the left, or something that can be simply equated with the work of Ross. Instead, it’s a theme that’s come up again and again in debates within our movements, running back at least as far as the arguments made by people like the Dutch antiracist organisation “De Fabel van de illegaal” and the authors of the “My Enemy’s Enemy” collection during the summit protest/anti-globalization movement of almost 20 years ago, through to people like Spencer Sunshine warning of the danger of far-right and antisemitic participation in the Occupy movement, and a subject that’s been brought up to the present day by a wide variety of writers including Elise Hendricks, Sol Process, Vagabond, Matthew Lyons and other contributors to the Three-Way Fight project, Andy Fleming, the Olympia anarchists who spoke out against Sadie and Exile, along with others like Bob from Brockley, Louis Proyect and Andrew Coates. If all the contributions made by all of these people are now to be written off as a neoliberal smear campaign, it’d be nice to have a little bit more evidence first.
If, for the sake of argument, we were to hypothetically agree that Andrew Reid Ross was the biggest prick in the world, that still wouldn’t mean that everything Sol Process, Vagabond or Matthew Lyons has written should be automatically discarded, even if Ross makes some of the same points as them.
And, in reality, the evidence against Ross is hardly watertight – WO spends a good portion of their reply rehashing the case against Caroline O, who Ross quotes in one article. But then, as WO themselves point out, it’s important to “to recognise the difference between mentioning somebody… and actually being a political supporter or associate of that person”.
In closing, WO touches on the subject of Max Blumenthal using legal threats to try and censor a piece of Ross’ writing – I’d interpreted their silence on this subject as tacit approval of Blumenthal’s behaviour, but it turns out that they were genuinely unaware of it. I’d assumed that anyone writing an article on the subject of Alexander Reid Ross’ writing about red-brown alliances would’ve done enough research to be aware of the most high-profile recent controversy to arise as a result of Alexander Reid Ross’ writing about red-brown alliances, but clearly I over-estimated the amount of effort WO was willing to put into learning about the subject at hand, more fool me.
But, as Biggie once said, “if you don’t know, now you know.” Now that the Winter Oak has been made aware of the fact that Max Blumenthal used legal threats to silence a critical article and then went on Fox News to brag about it, it would be good to know what their opinion on that subject is. If their previous silence was from ignorance, choosing to remain silent now that they are aware is a deliberate choice. And if they don’t clarify the situation, then, as always, the rest of us will be left to draw our own conclusions.
*or, to be strictly accurate, the only direct mention of Beeley by name isn’t straightforwardly positive, but it does mention “dislike of… Vanessa Beeley” as being among the reasons to distrust Daphne Lawless, as if disliking a posho state propagandist was somehow a suspicious character flaw and not a completely healthy reaction. It doesn’t take much imagination to simplify out the double negative there.
** I nearly wrote “left” there, but the inadvertent pun was just too awful.