For revolutionary struggle, not activism

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Mar 28 2008 03:47
For revolutionary struggle, not activism

Below is an article I’ve written for the upcoming issue of Imminent Rebellion, an Aotearoa anarchist journal (formerly a magazine) published by Rebel Press. The general gist of the article is certainly relevant outside of Aotearoa too...Its nothing amazing, most of it was written between 2am and 4:30am. That'll teach me to procrastinate til the last minute!

Anyway, comments, discussion etc are welcome smile

For revolutionary struggle, not activism

By Asher

“We need more people!” “If only there were more anarchists…”

These phrases and others like them are all too common amongst our anarchist communities across Aotearoa (and no doubt the rest of the world). But in themselves, they betray a fatal mistake in our goals, in how we see our role in moving towards a revolutionary situation.

An anarchist revolution will not come if we simply seek to convert more people to anarchism. Rather, more people adopting anarchist theory will be a by-product of successful anarchist organising and solidarity. There are a few issues we need to examine in order to best understand the role of anarchists in capitalist society.

Who will make a revolution?

An anarchist revolution cannot be made by a vanguard, by an elite group of activists, politicos or anarchists. A truly libertarian revolution, which all anarchists seek, can only be made by the great mass of the working class, in a broad sense of the term. This revolution will not magically appear the day we manage to get 51% of the population to call themselves anarchists, but rather by constantly seeking to expand upon the consciousness and militancy of the working class.

Genuine revolution will not be created by a specialist group of “professional revolutionaries”. While many anarchists have a sound critique of groups such as Greenpeace, SAFE or Amnesty International in that they posit themselves as the experts on activism, who the majority of people can pay to do political work, anarchists frequently fail to see that much of what they are doing is exactly the same, except they’re silly enough to do it for free! A large chunk of activism done by anarchists in Aotearoa in the last few years has been of this bent – we call the marches, we show up (perhaps with a few others, but rarely from outside of the wider activist circles), we hand out leaflets to bemused onlookers (who either ignore us or laugh at us, but certainly wouldn’t join in), then we go home. Ongoing organising be damned, we’re making a stand!

What are we doing?

Almost all anarchist activity in Aotearoa falls into two broad categories – activism (covering protests, single-issue groups etc) and propaganda (infoshops and publishing). It is activism that I will deal with here.

Activism deals primarily with issues far removed from the everyday lives of most people in Aotearoa – NZ troop involvement in overseas invasions, coal mines on the West Coast, a meeting of rich countries on the other side of the planet. In focussing on this type of issue, we ensure that we remain invisible to the vast majority of the working class, and out of touch with the very forces that can create the revolutionary situation we so desire.

In activism, we separate ourselves from the majority of the populace – protesting, marching, direct action etc are activities undertaken by “activists”, a specialist cadre of experts on social change.

Of course, there is no continuity in our activism, no real ongoing organising. Just jumping from protest to protest, deluding ourselves that we are having any effect whatsoever. Even our ongoing campaigns (for instance anti-war, or Save Happy Valley) are generally little more than semi-regular protests, with the odd press release in between. Almost nowhere is there any long term, strategic, grassroots organising taking place. Almost nowhere do we seem to acknowledge that things do take time to come to fruition. Instead, we bang our heads against a brick wall for a while, then move round the corner to the wall made of concrete, deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’re making progress.

Our activities are primarily oriented to other radicals, both in Aotearoa and overseas. We go to protests with each other, then head to a computer and post reports and photos on Indymedia, so our activist friends around the country can see what we did. If the demo was especially interesting, we might even all go together to a flat so we can see ourselves on the evening news! We are an insular collection of people, and even when we have the appearance of interacting with the public (for instance, on a march), we still ensure that we are separate from them, the “normals”. We don’t engage in conversation, just hand them a flier then move on, and after a while retreat back to the other radicals, safe behind a line of banners.

Against a subcultural orientation

The anarchist community in Aotearoa is thoroughly mired in subcultural politics. The punk and hippy subcultures between them supply the bulk of self-identified anarchists, with most of the remainder coming through the “alternative” liberal (ie – Green Party, fair trade, organics etc) community. That’s not to say that none of those people are working class, but rather that they are getting involved because of their subcultural identity.

There is a huge difference between a working class movement that is oriented to working class struggles and therefore attracts working class people, and a subcultural community that is oriented to specific subcultures and therefore attracts people from those subcultures. One of the above options could lead to a revolutionary situation. The other keeps us in our self-built ghetto.

For struggles of everyday life

If we are seeking to expand the consciousness and militancy of the working class, we need to stop focussing on battles which for most people appear to have little relevance, and are totally unwinnable for us few anarchists in Aotearoa anyway. We need to move away from the WTO and towards the workplace, away from the coal-mine and towards the community, away from the spectacular summit demo and towards the struggles of everyday life.

We need to stand in solidarity with workplace struggles that are taking place – standing on the picket lines and engaging with the workers taking part. We also need to be agitating with our workmates in our own work places. There are always grievances, it is our task to do all we can to promote collective action to fight for better wages and conditions, of course without any illusions that this will ever be enough in and of itself.

We need to be engaging with our own communities, whether they be geographical, ethnic or otherwise. In our geographical communities, we need to agitate with those around us and build a sense of purposeful connection now, so that when attacks come, we already have a base from which to struggle. When city councils attempt to impose extra charges (such as bin taxes or water metering), destroy community facilities such as libraries or swimming pools, or raise rents on council flats, we need to stand with our communities in opposition and fight.

This type of organising around the struggles of everyday life isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, and it isn’t sexy, but it is vital if we are to build a revolutionary movement against capital and state. The more we struggle, the more we build our bases in our workplaces and communities, the better chance we have of winning, and the broader and more interlinked our struggles will become.

For the broadening and intensification of struggle

“I am an anarchist not because I believe Anarchism is the final goal, but because I believe there is no such thing as a final goal. Freedom will lead us to continually wider and expanding understanding and to new social forms of life.”
Rudolf Rocker, a German anarcho-syndicalist

It is the task of anarchists to always be broadening the terms of any given struggle, and to fight against its recuperation. In workplace struggles, we should be wary of union attempts to sell out workers. In community struggles, we should be wary of NGOs and community groups who may seek a swift resolution without the meeting of all demands.

We must always seek to bring to light the systemic roots of what we are fighting against, and to link our struggles with others happening within our communities and around the world.

We must also realise that the odds are stacked against us, and, for a long time, we will likely lose more than we win. This doesn’t mean that we should stop fighting, or retreat into our activist ghettos. For if we fight, we have a chance at creating a better society, but in giving up or retreating, we lose any chance we ever had.

Further Reading

The Myth Of Passivity by Toby Boraman
The Myth Of Passivity documents the class struggles against the neoliberal policies of the 1980’s, such as the Employment Contracts Act, “Ruthinasia”, and “Rogernomics”. It takes a critical look at the way major Unions opposed these policies as well as looking at resistance from groups such as Maori, the Unemployed and Anarchists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/myth-passivity-class-struggles-neoliberalism-aotearoa-toby-boraman or order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/194

Beyond Resistance: A Revolutionary Manifesto by the Anarchist Federation (UK)
Beyond Resistance is the Anarchist Federation’s analysis of the capitalist world in crisis, suggestions about what the alternative anarchist communist society could be like, and evaluation of social and organisational forces which play a part in the revolutionary process.
Available for order from http://katipo.net.nz/product_info.php/products_id/357

The Lessons Of The Bin Tax Struggle – Interview with Dermot Sreenan, Workers Solidarity Movement
The opening years of the century saw a mass community based struggle against the shifting of taxation further onto the working class in Dublin, Ireland. Thousands of households were paid up members of the campaign and tens of thousands refused to pay this new tax over a period of years despite prosecutions, media hysteria and the jailing of over 20 activists.
Available online at http://libcom.org/library/the-lessons-of-the-bin-tax-struggle

Poll Tax Rebellion by Danny Burns
The gripping inside story of the biggest mass movement in British history, which at its peak involved over 17 million people. Using a combination of photos, text, and graphics, and drawing from the voices of activists and non-payers, it describes the everyday organization of local anti-poll tax groups and chronicles the demonstrations and riots leading up to the battle of Trafalgar. It shows how the courts were blocked, the bailiffs resisted, and the Poll Tax destroyed.
Available for order from http://akpress.com/1996/items/polltaxrebellion and see a review at http://libcom.org/library/poll-tax-rebellion-danny-burns-reviewed-wildcat-uk-1993

Also see the history, library and organise sections at http://www.libcom.org

Anarchia's picture
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Mar 28 2008 10:31

Congratulations. Want a cookie? I know I do. I like cookies.

Battlescarred
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Mar 28 2008 10:43

Anyway, Asher, the best of luck to you in your ventures

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happychaos
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Mar 28 2008 14:08

Asher, I completely agree. The next question, is, so what are we going to do about it? smile We've all been saying this for many years now.

The reason why Ingrid and I got involved in unions and why we put up with something we don't altogether agree with, is because that is the only place where collective working class organising is going on in Aotearoa New Zealand. Even with all its limitations, there is nothing else going on for us to be involved in (unless it was just ourselves again which we were trying to avoid.)

Many anarchists don't want to engage in workplace stuff and many see it as being reformist.

If Anarchists don't want to engage with the very people they believe are the only ones capable of changing society, then what's the point in beleiving in Anarchist at all? Being involved with real people means dealing with the reality of peoples everyday lives. Which also means creating strategies that exist and work in the real world and keep us from becoming sectarian/clickey.

We are back from the Phillipines and are quite keen on getting back on track with stuff outside of the union office. So if you're keen, there are some people in Chch who are also keen in grassroots workplace stuff who you could co-inspire.

Simon

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Mar 29 2008 09:12
Quote:
We've all been saying this for many years now.

Dunno who you mean by "we" (you and Ingrid perhaps?) - its certainly not something I think the majority of self-defined anarchists in Aotearoa would agree with, unfortunately. But yeah, there definitely are a few around who I've talked to/worked with who think along similar lines.

Quote:
If Anarchists don't want to engage with the very people they believe are the only ones capable of changing society, then what's the point in beleiving in Anarchist at all?

Other than the spelling mistakes, I agree entirely - although some local anarchists would certainly deny that the working class are "the only ones capable of changing society".

Quote:
Which also means creating strategies that exist and work in the real world and keep us from becoming sectarian/clickey.

Again, apart from the spelling, I agree.

From here, I find myself in a slight pickle, as I don't feel I can properly commit to any new projects at the moment, because, if all goes to plan, I won't be in the country for almost half of this year - I'm certainly keen to be involved in any discussions and help where I can in the meantime though, obviously.

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May 23 2008 15:12

I think i'll just have to disagree.

I'm a believer in the creative and spontaneous ability to action of the working masses. But as it stands, workers here aren't changing society. Workers here have been lulled back into voting for change. The unions have been abandoned in australia. With the rich having the media in the palm of their hands, the state has been able to tear up workers rights in their face, and have them hardly even flinch.

Would people consider it safe to say that a majority of wage slaves are under the impression that they're middle class? Due to the suburban McMansions bought with bank loans, nice cars with nice car loans, nice clothes with credit cards, and furniture and appliances with 24 months interest free. They've got it great at the moment, not a care in the world. Wealthy elite decadence meets wage slavery.

The working class isn't going to mobilise until things turn for the worst for them. So at least while noone really cares either way, we can get on with some non-revolutionary direct action. Who cares that blockading forests doesn't bring about the social revolution of the working masses. It still saves the small amount of forest we have left that the rest of the working class doesn't really care about.

Asif it's possible for us who care to sit back and say "Don't worry, wait for the rise of the masses." while the rich oppressors cut down all the forests, dig up all the resources, mismanage water supplies, graze cattle on land that doesn't like hooves, grow chickens in batteries and double the size of coal export ports and pretend they care about climate change. What's going to be left for the workers to take control of once everything is gone?

x

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May 27 2008 10:24

Asher,
Yes I agree. Although I came to anarchism via punk and have nothing against punk ethos, it is definitely a huge mistake that so much anarchist activity is tied down in subcultural ghettos and so little towards the working class community as a whole. Far too much activity seems to be geared toward creating the spectacle of rebellion and too little towards ongoing struggle.
As for Gabs' comments, yes the working class in Australia are not as militant as we would like them to be, but in many ways the abandonment of the union movement can be seen as a perfectly reasonable reaction to the way it has been run in this country. Why for instance is it necessary for unions in Australia to have on average four times as many employees per thousand members as unions in the UK? Where the unions are still militant, they are still strong, for instance the MUA.
Whilst activist deeds such as the blockading of forests by small numbers of people may be very well meaning they have little history of success. Where as workers engaged in enlightened unions can and do make a real difference to there cause. A good example of this is the BLF who through green bans made a genuine improvement to the environment of the greater Sydney area.

asn
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May 27 2008 11:38

for a more realistic discussion of these issues and the way ahead see "Anarcho-Syndicalism: Catalyst for Workers Self Organisation" on our web site www.rebelworker.org archive section

Kakariki
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May 27 2008 13:11
asn wrote:
more realistic

Kinda patronising don't ya think?

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Jun 10 2008 13:16

I've spent the last week doing a lot of consideration about the cons of activism in relation to workers' Direct Action.
Activism has a far more reformist tendancy than getting involved with unions, and i've seen that alot of activism considered Direct Action(a positive thing), still is only a catalyst for reform.

Demonstrations and "actions" i've been a part of have all been reformist aimed, definitely something i'm aiming to stop. Action aimed at shutting things down hurts workers', they could be taking the action themselves and not losing wages. Aswell as making a new class distinction and divides up workers and cops on one side, and "those bloody ferals!" on the other.

As for climate camp, i'll go along for an interesting time and a bit of an interstate adventure, but i'm definitely not going to be putting myself on the line, when i know the workers could pull of what we want to do, far more easily, and without arrest or altercation. Workers striking for a couple of days to say "no coal industry expansion! expand renewables!" would be epic. Maybe i'll liase with some train drivers and miners for a chat so they know who stands where, something i reckon should happen more.

I'm no hippy.

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Jun 11 2008 10:13

Hi, I beleive in workers taking action and that mass action makes more change. But sometimes you have to take action even if the workers aren't going to do it. That's doesn't mean you still shouldn't be involved in collective action.

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Jun 16 2008 18:23

Ohh yeah i know, but when i say "put myself on the line" i mean as an arrestable. I heaps wouldn't want to have to get back to newcastle later on in the year to get charged for refusing to cease loiter and a bunch of other jibber jabber for a lock on. I'll work out something, uh, counter-productive to do there.

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Jun 28 2008 11:49

You know, if you weren't so patronising, you might actually be able to help build a stronger anarchist movement in Sydney.
Bit of a shame, innit?

Sam Buchanan
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Jun 30 2008 05:44

I largely agree with your conclusions. It seems odd to me that some anarchists preach community, then throw themselves into organising yet another small confrontational demo, without first building a base in the workplace, iwi or neighbourhood.

However, I do think such things as the campaign against the Happy Valley coal mine or anti-WTO actions were useful. If we ignore the WTO et al as "a meeting... on the other side of the planet", we are kind of missing the point. Globalisation, 'free' trade and global warming aren't nebulous problems elsewhere, but are going to come home and impact on people's lives, wages and communities.

Secondly, your description of the anarchist bears little resemblance to the one I'm in. I do get a bit annoyed when people say 'we' all the time without saying who 'we' is. Some activists might be jumping from demo to demo, banging their heads against brick walls, ignoring long term strategy, grassroots organising etc. etc. plenty of others are not. A lot of the anarchist energy, at least in Wellington, isn't tied up with propaganda and organising demos (what you call 'activism' - I'd use the term more widely) as you suggest, but building long term projects - community centres, community gardens, the internet cafe, the radical library etc. Some of these might not have got out of the ghetto yet, but some have, and the others are working on it.

That aside, I agree that anarchists need to re-think their focus. It's surprised me how little support there's been for local initiatives - for example when a few people from Wildcat kicked off the anti-water meter campaign around the last local elections, it drew together lots of people from the local communities in Kapiti and the Hutt, and made the issue enough of a hot potato that the councils backed off sharply in the face of community opposition,but most anarchists completely ignored the campaign.

Cheers

Sam

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Jul 1 2008 16:49

Hey Sam,

Obviously, I totally agree with you that the decisions of the WTO etc have a potentially huge impact on people's lives - of that there can be no question. What I was saying in my piece, however, was that:

A) Organising around the WTO is really hard to connect to people's lives when there isn't already a political understanding and knowledge (ie - it could be something worth doing down the track once communities of resistance actually exist).

B) With our (the radical left) current resources and numbers, there isn't a single thing we can do around the WTO that (in my view) is worthwhile.

My comments on the "activist" focus of anarchist activities was primarily based on the Wellington community - while I would agree there has been a move away from it since probably 2006, I don't think it's been a move towards anything else necessarily. I feel that the same critique could be applied to the Christchurch community prior to the near-collapse of SHV down there, and certainly to the Auckland community.

From what little I heard about the water charges stuff Wildcat did (mostly from our Upper Hutt comrade), it did indeed sound like a really positive (and successful) idea - it's sad that there wasn't more interest from Wellington anarchist crew.

p.s: This might not be the right place to ask, but I'd be really interested to hear the reasons behind Wildcat's submission on the China FTA, and especially some of the lines used (around harm to small business) - I found it odd, to say the least (but have only seen things via email, as I'm no longer in NZ)!

Sam Buchanan
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Jul 1 2008 23:41

I guess my argument is that discussing the WTO and its impact is part of the politicisation process and something that has been done very well by the anti-globalisation movement, though maybe not so well donein Aotearoa.

"My comments on the "activist" focus of anarchist activities was primarily based on the Wellington community"

So were mine, and my examples., most of which have been running for a fair while.

As far as the Wildcat submission goes, I largely intended as a propaganda piece, and a document for the group to talk around. Annoyingly we got booked to present it on budget day, so nobody in the media took any notice. We never mentioned small businesses so I'm not sure what you are getting at.

yuda
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Jul 2 2008 03:18

I think from memory the Wildcat being the defender of NZ small businesses was an assertion from some rather humour deprived marxists on A-IMC

Sam Buchanan
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Jul 2 2008 04:52

The Worker's party were quite critical, accusing us of being nationalists. I don't think they read the agreement as the piece on their website about the China FTA just repeated the misinformation that was in the capitalist press.

yuda
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Jul 2 2008 06:41

Have you got a link for that Sam? I didn't really understand their point from their indy posts (not that I was trying too hard).

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Jul 2 2008 20:09

Sorry, it wasn't small business (my mistake, I read it a while ago)- here are the quotes that I found odd in the Wildcat statement (espec the first one):

Quote:
The group believes the FTA with China threatens to undermine local manufacturers
Quote:
New Zealanders are losing the power to make informed choices about the products they are buying.
Quote:
"Hence, this agreement reduces the accountability of businesses to the community they are supposed to serve², says Sam Buchanan.

I totally think discussions around the FTA within groups are worthwhile, but I still don't get at all why Wildcat decided to make a submission to parliament...

Sam Buchanan
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Jul 2 2008 23:12

As I said, it was mostly a propaganda piece - we thought we might get a bit more notice by putting it in as a submission rather than just issuing it as a press release. It also provided a nice opportunity to take the piss out of some politicians (by presenting it to the committee as an interpretive dance), which isn't going to achieve a great deal, but it kept me (and others) amused.

I thought the debate it started was quite interesting - we, predictably, got accused of being nationalists by people who have no problem with state boundaries. If you examine this from a position of ignoring state boundaries, the FTA is creating a situation where manufacturing and jobs are being moved from one jurisdiction to one in which there is less protection of workers, lower environmental standards, lower wages, less ability for consumers to know what they are buying/using/eating and what conditions are like for the workers who made the product.

One would imagine that if the government proposed legislation to, for example, allow products manufactured in Turangi to be made to a lower standard, with less public oversight, by workers with lower pay, than products manufactured in Taumaranui, there would be howls of outrage from all sorts of sectors., but for some reason, by doing the same across state boundaries seems to mute the criticism.

The FTA also allows for some workers doing the same job in the same place to have lesser pay and protections than others (some being employed under Chinese government law, others under New Zealand government law), but nobody seems to have noticed this.

Sam Buchanan
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Jul 2 2008 23:31

Oh yeah, this is the worker's party thing: http://thespark.org.nz/category/free-trade/

Phillip Ferguson attacked me on IndyMedia: "The answer, Sam, is not to join the NF in trying to keep out Chinese workers; it's to work to *unionise* them when they're here and challenge any and all restirctions on their rights."

Of course, we never suggested keeping Chinese workers out, it just seems to be part of the pantheon of marxist arguments these days, to imply anarchists opposing globalisation or whatever are racist. I got the same response to making jibes at the Iranian ruling class a while back.

I don't get Ferguson's objections to our challenging the FTA for reducing worker's rights, while calling for people to challenge restrictions on workers rights, perhaps it's dialectical?