At the Melbourne Anarchist Book Fair held last August there was a session on the topic of anarchist federation in Australia. Liam Brown, a comrade from Anarchist Affinity indicated that he was opposed to the formation of an anarchist federation due to a lack of established groups. Furthermore, Liam Brown made the startling claim that anarchists were joining Socialist Alternative because of the current lack of established anarchist groups in Melbourne. This was corroborated by a member of Socialist Alternative present.
Putting aside the question of whether or not you can credibly claim to be an anarchist and be a member of a political party that states it seeks the “dismantling existing state institutions (parliaments, courts, the armed forces and police) and replacing them with an entirely new state based on genuinely democratic control by the working class.” I’d like to examine not only comrade Liam Brown’s observations but also some of the assertions made by Kieran Bennett, a leading member of Anarchist Affinity, about anarchist federation in Australia.
In January 2015, five anarchist organisations agreed to found Anarchist Federation Australia on a provisional basis and to continue to work on a constitution with the aim of putting it before delegates at an inaugural Congress. To the best of my knowledge, Anarchist Affinity was established in 2012. The five affiliated organisations of AFA were established (in reverse chronological order); Perth Libertarians (2014), Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group (2004), Melbourne Anarchist Club (1987), Jura Books Collective (1977) and Grupo Cultural Estudios Sociales de Melbourne (1965). All of these organisations, bar Perth Libertarians, were established well in advance of Anarchist Affinity. It raises the question; how does Anarchist Affinity define an ‘established group’?
On 4 May 2013, Kieran Bennett wrote on his blog;
“I want to see an effective Australia wide anarchist political organisation. But to be effective this organisation will require the participation of a number of vibrant anarchist groups, with shared politics, a common and reasonably well developed theoretical understanding of the situation we are in, and preparedness to commit to a common strategy based on that theoretical understanding.
These are not things that can be willed out of thin air.
Before such a national organisation can be forged, we need sizeable and active anarchist groups in Australia’s major cities, that communicate and cooperate, and that engage in the serious political discussion required to develop a common political understanding.
This hasn’t happened yet. Australian anarchism remains a small collection of unconnected grouplets with a theoretical understanding that is often as shallow as it is varied.”
This was written a month before the ‘Towards Federation Anarchist Conference’ which was held at the Melbourne Anarchist Club over a weekend in June 2013. It would seem that KB regarded group such as the MAC, Jura or Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group were neither ‘sizeable’ nor ‘active’ without defining either – What constitutes sizeable? What does an anarchist group have to do to be considered active? Is there an example elsewhere of an anarchist federation that has formed according to this template?
Presumably KB regarded the three groups mentioned above as mere ‘grouplets’ with ‘a theoretical understanding that is often as shallow as it is varied’ But provides no evidence for this whatsoever.
This wasn’t the first time that KB had some recommendations for anarchists in Australia. On 30 April 2012, in a critique of Sedition as an example of “the sorry state of Anarchist theoretical development in Australia” he asserts;
“there are no short cuts to undertaking the work of developing Anarchism in the Australian context. A wholly imported tradition, developed in a different context, will not offer meaningful explanation or insight into the Australian situation. This is not to say that an Australian anarchist tradition cannot learn from studying other contexts, but the hard work of testing and developing ideas against the situation in Australia still has to be undertaken”
What is Platformism/Specifism if not a ‘wholly imported tradition, developed in a different context’ that lacks a ‘meaningful explanation or insight into the Australian situation’?
Platformism developed out of an analysis and evaluation of the apparent failure of anarchism in Russia post 1921. These Russian anarchist exile based in Paris thought that success would be more likely if elements of the apparently victorious Bolsheviks were oncorporated into the anarchist program. The ‘Platform’ was not published in English until the 1970s and not long after that, copies made their way to Australia where it was widely read and discussed. The general consensus then was that ‘The Platform’ resembled Bolshevism a bit too much for comfort. Nevertheless, in the last ten years or so, ‘The Platform’ has enjoyed renewed interest.
However, there is a glaring omission in KB’s analysis; he completely ignores the experience of the ASF, the only organisation to practice anarchist federation in the last 30 years. Does this not qualify as ‘the hard work of testing and developing ideas against the situation in Australia’?
It may be that KB and presumably AA hold a view of the practice of anarcho-syndicalism as a mistaken method. In his commentary on an article “Organising in Australia” that appeared in Sedition #1, KB advocates “Every anarchist should be a union activist in their workplace. This seems a far more realistic strategy for building links to the industrial struggle than any attempt to build a new syndicalist union.” In other words, anarchists should eschew that task of building anarcho-syndicalist unions for activism inside existing reformist unions, a kind of ‘boring from within’. This is entirely self-serving on Kieran’s part as he is an organiser with the NUW (not from the shoplfloor), a union that is affiliated to the ACTU and the ALP. But it raises the question; how is this consistent with the concept of theoretical unity presuming that anarchism is the theory in question. How does an anarchist reconcile their employment by an ALP-affiliated reformist union with anarchism?
It’s tempting to understand AA attitude to anarchist federation in Australia as a kind of sectarianism informed by Platformist attitudes to anarcho-syndicalism which are often indistinguishable from classic Trot critiques based on a disingenuous and selective reading of the CNT’s ‘collaboration’ with the Catalan government during the Spanish Revolution. Perhaps AA are not willing to co-operate or engage with other anarchist groups because of a perceived lack of theoretical understanding. It would be reasonable to presume that Platformist organisations are not interested in any anarchist federation that does conform to the views of Platform – the only real anarchist federation is a Platformist anarchist federation.
The problem with this view is the fact that the MACG, an avowed Platformist group that has not only demonstrated its willingness to co-operate with the anarchist groups mentioned above, but also its preparedness to engage with other anarchist groups to deepen a theoretical understanding with the basic concepts of anarchism.
How is it that two Platformist groups can take markedly differing views to anarchist federation given their adherence to the principle of theoretical unity?