Published in the Summer of 2012 in the AF's magazine Organise!, issue 78, this article outlines the politics of the AF with an historical perspective.
The AF has its roots in a number of small anarchist groupings active in the 1970s. In addition, the founding members were inspired by the rich anarchist tradition on the Continent, especially France. Taking what we thought was best from the past and from abroad, the goal was to create an anarchist communist organisation, firmly based on the class struggle or ‘social anarchist’ tradition.
The project received crucial impetus with the bringing on board of the innovative magazine Virus. The Anarchist Communist Discussion Group was then launched at the Anarchist Bookfair in October 1985. We received remarkable interest in our project and by April 1986, there was enough stability to formalise the organisation into the Anarchist Communist Federation. Although there is some historic continuity with earlier anarchist groups in Britain, the federation was mainly a new phenomenon, drawing on people new to anarchism in the 1980s. We started out with a set of aims and principles, which remain largely intact, but there has still been considerable development in our politics, as new people join and offer new perspectives, and as we develop our ideas in the course of what is going on in the class struggle itself. In the late 90s we changed our name to the Anarchist Federation, not because we had changed our politics, but for pragmatic reasons.
The central plank of our principles, like all anarchist organisations, is the recognition of the need to bring an end to capitalism in all its varieties as well as the state, which can never be used as a vehicle to properly transform society. In addition, we believe that these objectives can only come about through a social revolution, where the working class organises itself to overthrow the system both ideologically and physically. Our definition of the working class is broad, reflecting the fact that capitalism has undergone significant changes. A social revolution can only come about as a result of the will of the vast majority of the population, including office and shop workers, public sector employees, the unwaged, women working in the home, children and retired people, as well as the traditional industrial workers. Anarchism is not about individuals changing their lifestyle and hoping capitalism will go away, but is about individuals changing themselves and being changed as part of a general social struggle.
But we never fetishise or glamourise violence, recognising that the use of violence can brutalize, being a ‘blunt instrument’, can lead inadvertently to working-class casualties, and can produce new hierarchies. The revolution will primarily come about through non-military means, as we develop our power through a variety of social, economic, political and cultural forms of resistance. It is to this end that we work. Nevertheless, we realise that physical confrontation with the state it is unavoidable; it will not go quietly but will defend property. Therefore we do not hold pacifism to be a point of principle.
Exploitation and oppression take many forms and extend into all parts of our lives. One important principle of the AF is that it is not just class exploitation and oppression that needs to be abolished. Although we are a ‘class struggle’ organisation, this struggle is social and personal, as well as economic. Therefore, we argue that anarchists must fight on a number of other ‘fronts’. For example, we believe that the oppression of women pre-dates capitalism and will not automatically disappear with its end. Sexism permeates the working class and also the anarchist movement and it will require particular struggles to rid ourselves of this legacy. At the same time, we do not see struggles against sexism as totally separate from those against the overall system of hierarchy and oppression. Recently, the women’s movement has been in decline and this is reflected in the lack of focus on specifically anti-sexist struggles in our propaganda and our activities. This is something we are trying to deal with - how not to be gender-blind in our analysis of the working class and the class struggle. We also recognise that there may be instances where women will need to organise as independently in order to develop ideas and confidence, and we applaud those initiatives aimed at developing anarcho-feminism. However, we do not support ‘cross-class’ alliances, which end up benefiting mainly middle class women. For example, ‘equal opportunities’ policies have largely meant that women have equal opportunities to become bosses and managers, politicians or media personalities.
The Anarchist Federation has also been in the forefront of developing revolutionary perspectives and practice within struggles around sexuality and gender identity, confronting any bourgeois domination of Lesbian- Gay-Bi-Transgender-Queer movements and routinely confronting capitalism at Pride events. Because woman and LGBTQ people at times need to organise in our own interests, or for mutual support even within the anarchist movement, the AF has its own women’s and LGBTQ caucuses.
The social revolution must bring an end to all forms of prejudice, therefore racism too needs to be combated within the working class itself. We have seen a growth in racism for a variety of reasons. Misplaced fears against economic migration and ‘false’ claims to asylum, and hysterical responses to 9/11 and 7/7 compound the problems of decades-old ingrained post-colonial racist cultures. As such, much of our propaganda and activity has been directed at building anarchist resistance to racism and fascism, on the streets where necessary. But there we refuse ‘unholy’ alliances with reactionary religious groups. Nevertheless, like the rest of the British anarchist movement we have had limited success in attracting members from the full spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. We recognise that suspicion of the motives of opportunist left-wing political organisations plays a part in this. As with women and LGBTQ people, people of colour may need to organise themselves even within revolutionary organisations. We consider that our practice and propaganda play some role in correctly analysing, undermining and confronting racism nonetheless. We hope that our practice, in the workplace and community, will help divisions within the working class to be overcome.
We also recognise the special forms of oppression and discrimination experienced by people because of our age or our mental or physical ability. Unlike capitalists, anarchists do not value people on the basis of their economic contribution and exploitability as paid workers. Where such groups are dependent on the welfare state, our activity as anarchists in our own defence economically in the current period will be vital in spreading confidence and direct action amongst us. But discrimination runs deeper than economics. Anarchists must not perpetuate the stereotypes we receive, from the media for example, about elderly or disabled people, anymore than we do about different races, genders and sexualities. We work towards insults in this sense being confronted just as much as homophobia, racism and sexism. Indeed, anarchists must never turn a blind eye to any kind of domination and should be prepared to combat signs of discrimination at all levels. However, we do not believe that we should be calling on the State for help. Prejudice and reactionary practices will only disappear through activity and struggle, enabling people to change in their core, not just on the surface.
In terms of the workplace, the nature of Trade Unionism in Britain has posed many problems for us when trying to decide on a workplace strategy. The unions are not only reformist but are often totally implicated in the exploitation of the working class. Our experience led us to adopt what some may call an ‘anti-union’ position. We argue that people should not take up paid positions in the union and that in many cases there is no point in even being a member of a union. There is no point in trying to ‘democratise’ the unions or try and make them more combative. It is in their nature to negotiate with capitalism, not to undermine it seriously. They cannot be reformed. This position has caused some difficulties because as most workplace activity takes place within the context of the official union, what do we actually do? We have argued that we should be trying to organise informal groups of militant workers, whether they be union members or not. The aim is not to establish an alternative union structure, which would only end up becoming another reformist union, but to be a source of revolutionary propaganda and a catalyst for action. In practice, our members take a very pragmatic approach to organising in the workplace. Members adopt whatever strategy seems most effective for furthering struggle and resisting exploitation. Though we do not advocate anarcho-syndicalism as an overall strategy, we agree with the formation of structures which group anarchists as workers or across industries, in order to further anarchist influence in economic struggles. Several of our members are also members of the Industrial Workers of the World or the Solidarity Federation- IWA. The main principle of all our workplace activity is to build up effective, revolutionary, non-hierarchical forms of organisation, whatever name is given to them.
Just as important is another ‘front’ of which we fight: the community. We are aware that community in the ‘traditional’ or idealised sense does not really exist. But there are issues that affect localities where people live. These issues include transport, provision of public services and the effect of the environment on health. Though these issues can be raised in a workplace context, effective action requires a broader organisational base, incorporating people as both producers and consumers. The locality is also the context in which we engage in anti-fascist, environmental, welfare, anti-war and anti-religion campaigns. Though members will raise these issues at work, we stress the importance of organising local actions and distributing propaganda at the community level- on the streets, in public meetings and through direct action. Members work with other class-struggle or social anarchists to set up local groups with the aim of raising awareness of anarchist ideas amongst the wider working class and initiating action in our defence or to further goals common within our communities.
Finally, we have a strong internationalist perspective and are particularly critical of national liberation movements and ideologies. There can be no ‘better’ government, however representative it is of the peoples it governs. The only way we can achieve true liberation is through internationalism, which refuses to choose between oppressors. History has shown that the ‘lesser of the two evils’ soon turns out to be just as ‘evil’. Meanwhile, you have abandoned your own principles and weakened your own movement. Our members in Ireland have pioneered, in very difficult conditions, an anarchism that refuses to take sides with either nationalism. It is only by building up the international anarchist movement that we can effectively challenge all oppressors, and therefore we are active members of the International of Anarchist Federations and have played a role in enabling the formation of social anarchist federations in other countries.
We are organised on federalist lines, which means we are a federation of individuals and groups with no central political apparatus. This does not mean that we have no decision-making structure. Not to have a formal structure usually leads to informal leadership cliques with more influence than other members. We have one national conference and three national delegate meetings a year, which take decisions on our general orientation, strategy and action. However, these decisions are reached through extended discussion in our Internal Bulletin and on our internal on-line forum. We use ‘direct democracy’, in that members of local groups take their group’s opinions to meetings, as opposed to ‘representing’ them and having individual power. Local delegates and nationally appointed officers are therefore functionaries, with no power to operate outside their mandate. They are recalled if they either overstep this or fail to carry out what they have been tasked with. It is very rare that we have anything that is not generally agreed after discussion. We aim for consensus in decisionmaking, but we do not fetishise it. If a consensus cannot be agreed upon and we feel that a decision must be reached nonetheless, then we can move to a vote. The decision must be based on a two-thirds majority. This is to ensure that we are moving forward as an organisation. If we do vote on anything, the vote is first open to any member to register a negative vote. If the decision is still made, then groups and/or individuals are still free to not implement the decision as long as they do not seek to undermine the organisation.
One of our central concerns is, therefore, how to ensure maximum participation of all members and how to avoid formal and informal hierarchies. After all, it is our experiences that will provide the basis for alternative ways of organising society. We do not always succeed in achieving the standards of participation that we aspire to. However, we are continually reviewing our practice. Though the structures and mechanisms for participation may be in place, we recognise that there are many individual reasons why some are more dominant than others, related to issues of confidence, age, experience, gender and educational background. Therefore it is not enough just to say that the organisation is non-hierarchical. It is necessary to actively encourage participation, through rotation of tasks, involving individuals in small groups and commission work and helping to build confidence through workshops and educationals.
We are an organisation of activists and propagandists for anarchy. We publish and distribute a bi-annual magazine, Organise! and a monthly free bulletin, Resistance . We also produce a range of pamphlets, posters and stickers. The aim of our propaganda is primarily to spread anarchist ideas throughout all sections of the working class. However, Organise! is aimed more at those who are politicised to a greater extent and therefore focuses on new analysis, debates and theory that will provoke discussion in the anarchist and wider political movement. In addition to distributing propaganda, individual members are engaged in a wide variety of activities, in the workplace, in local anarchist or anti-authoritarian groups, in universities and colleges, in campaigns and actions against the war, around environmental issues, supporting asylum seekers, and challenging reactionary ideas of religious fanatics and fascists, on the streets where necessary. But how do we differ from other anarchists?
The anarchist movement has grown in numbers and in influence over the past decade. People have been attracted to anarchism for a variety of reasons and therefore it is a diverse movement, both in terms of ideas and practices. This diversity can be a positive feature of the movement, and the AF recognises that we do not have a monopoly of ‘truth’ on what anarchism should be. However, there are several principles that we take to be vital, and feel that it is only our organisation that groups all of these principles together. We have outlined these principles in this text, but we will now discuss briefly why exist as a distinctive organisation.
Not all anarchists put the same stress as we do on formal organisation, at both the national and international organisation. Though strong local groups and initiatives are the basis of an effective national organisation, co-ordination and sharing of ideas must happen on the widest level if the working class is ever to organise a revolution. In addition, this organisation must be permanent in the sense that it continues to exist and be active regardless of what big events may be taking place or how active particular individuals are (although the Revolution itself would of course make the AF’s existence redundant, which is just one way in which we differ from authoritarian communists). We need an organisation that can continue to exist, regardless of whether some individuals drop out or become less active. For similar reasons we need to be sceptical of investing too much time and effort in ‘networks’, which come and go, as well as having a tendency to operate with informal hierarchies. However, although influenced by Platformism and not opposed to Platformism per se, we do not go so far as some contemporary Platformists; that is to say, down the route of focussing decision-making and organisational discipline at the centre, which we consider by-passes the legitimate autonomy of local groups to act as they wish within the Aims and Principles.
2. Anarchist Communism
We are part of the anarchist tradition sometimes referred to as anarchist communism. That is to say, we seek the abolition of the state and also of money and private property. We strive for complete freedom and complete equality simultaneously. We believe in the importance of building a political organisation that is based on the working class (in the broadest sense), and which is active on a number of fronts. This is what distinguishes us from anarchosyndicalism. Though we are part of the same social anarchist tradition (anarchist communists and anarchosyndicalists are likely to be in the same organisation in countries like Spain, France and Italy), we emphasise different tactics and strategies. For us, building an anarcho-syndicalist union can only ever form one prong of an overall strategy and even then has to be adapted to specific contexts in line with revolutionary anarchist principles. This is why the AF exists separately from the Solidarity Federation.
Anarchist communism also rejects other forms of anarchism such as green anarchism or ‘life-stylism’. Though concern for the environment is a key part of our politics, it does not take priority over any other issue. We welcome the fact that people refuse to conform to bourgeois codes but a revolution will not come about by dressing differently or living in squats. In any case, historical experience has shown that these alternative lifestyles are short-lived, with many soon dropping out and/ or becoming key members of the establishment. Anarchism is something to be maintained in all stages of life, even if the anarchist holds down a job, has children, or takes out a mortgage. Anarchists, after all, should be part of the working class, not in their own ghetto of alternative ‘activists’. That doesn’t mean, however, that anarchists should seek to adopt some stereotyped working class image. The anarchist movement should contain a diverse range of people, not conforming to any stereotype. What matters are one’s ideas, practice and commitment. Similarly, we reject insurrectionism as a strategy to achieve anarchism. Individuals may become frustrated at our inability to strike effectively against our oppressors, but unfortunately there are no shortcuts. It is the everyday organising and struggle that forms the basis for all the more obvious revolutionary moments.
Individual ‘heroics’ can never be a substitute for mass action. In addition, individual acts of violence are usually counterproductive, bringing down repression on a movement not yet strong enough to defend itself. As the Italian Anarchist Federation declared after being mistakenly associated with a recent letter bomb- ‘Anarchism cannot be delivered through a letter box’. However, there may be circumstances where violent actions are justified, but only when the actions are directly linked and supported by a wider movement. We must be to develop an anarchist presence within the working class both in the workplace and the locality. The future for anarchism and for the planet lies in anarchism being taken up by a wide variety of working class people in their everyday struggles.
3. Building the Movement
The AF will support and work with any individual or group who shares the general aim of creating an anarchist society that is economically egalitarian. We have our distinctive perspective on how to bring this aim about, a perspective that is part of a long tradition, and will continue to argue for this perspective to be the basis for the building of a strong and effective anarchist movement. However, we also recognise that if this tradition is not to become a historical relic, it must be continually enriched by new ideas and practices.
We hope that British anarchism will grow into an effective and influential movement within the working class, bringing together a wide variety of occupations, social groups and generations. This will require longterm commitment and perseverance, through both the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ of political activity. We will do whatever is necessary to contribute to the building of such a movement, as the future of us all depends on it.
The Anarchist Federation
Organise! magazine, Summer 2012, issue 78, pages 7-11