Breaking out of subcultures: the need for organisation and strategy.

Breaking out of subcultures

This short pamphlet was written and published as an addendum to an introductory workshop on Especifismo -- a contemporary theory of organized anarchism -- that we hosted during the Winter Moot 2024 of Earth First!.

The text aims to identify the main issues with anarchism in the imperial core today with lack of strategy and the absorption of anarchism itself into subcultures. It introduces Especifismo as a theory of strategy for organised anarchists, and highlights its relevance in the current conditions of global crisis, while pointing out some open questions on approaches to build popular power along the way.

Submitted by Stoking the Em… on April 30, 2024

Errico Malatesta

To favour popular organisations of all kinds is the logical consequence of our fundamental ideas and, thus, should be an integral part of our programme.

Ricardo Flores Magón

If [the revolutionary] lacks the guiding idea of their action, they will not be anything other than a ship without a compass.

Introduction

In a century that will be marked by ever-escalating crisis, oppressed peoples are going to need organs and institutions to defend their interests against a system which will increasingly pivot towards violence and authoritarianism to defend its power.

With the increasing waves of displaced peoples and supply chain instability, wrought by the horrors of the climate and ecological crisis, the imperial and domestic aggression of our states is only going to grow. This growth has to be matched by a movement powerful enough to restrain it, and transform society towards a liberatory system based on confederation, communes and collective ecological ownership - or we will be witnesses to the most violent century that our species has ever seen.  

We know things are getting worse. We also know that we, as libertarian socialists, are failing to get any sort of serious purchase on the popular struggles of today – anarchism is at one of its lowest ebbs in terms of influence on mass popular struggles, a shadow of where we were in previous decades. The strategies and levels of organisation that have been adopted by most of us involved in anarchist politics in recent decades have clearly not succeeded at bringing about the type of change we need in the time frame it is needed. This fact has prompted us to look elsewhere for answers, some of which we lay out in this text.

This short pamphlet therefore aims to identify a problem we consider central to the extreme marginalisation of the anarchist movement and to point to a couple of options that are open to us, as anti-authoritarian revolutionaries, to organise ourselves and become a serious force again.

A Critique of the Subculture as a Space for Change

A subculture can be understood as a group/space/context whose internal logic, and shared behaviour are at variance with that of the wider population. These occur naturally, constitute part of the diversity of human society and often provide arenas where people can feel safer and express themselves more authentically. All sorts of groups, from marginalised ethnic communities to youth, from religious groups to musicians, form subcultures.

It makes sense that anarchists, whose ideas of mutual aid and non-domination run so counter to prevailing hegonomic norms are likely to create subcultures to be able to practice these values amongst each other. These subcultures have been great sources of support (emotional and material), strength and happiness for many people. Similarly, the counter-culture that is sometimes built up in these spaces/groups can be an enormous source of political inspiration for the movement.

What we take issue with, is not that subcultures exist (they always will), or even that anarchists exist within them, but that anarchism, as a project, has become absorbed by them - reduced to being nothing more than just a subculture - and has therefore become divorced from the masses and their everyday struggles. 

What does this actually mean? That anti-authoritarian praxis has come to constitute either the explicit construction of subcultures or has failed to expand beyond the edge of our subculture. In less abstract terms, anarchism becomes a subcultural phenomenon when our projects are only really of interest to other anarchists, and our political interactions are only really with other anarchists. Red and Anarchist Action Network, the (now seemingly defunct) US-based libertarian communist group, put it in the following way:

...withdrawing into a series of alienating social circles, which we here will call “scenes”. If scenes are the bourgeois social structures that arise as a result of people struggling to come to terms with alienation, then “Anarcho-sceneism” is the held belief that a revolutionary movement can exist within, or even be based on, any such scene.

This is what we must fight against - to reassert our role as the cutting edge of the struggle against capitalism and the state, indistinguishable from the rising masses, not just another demographic whose identity happens to be a dislike of authority, and a belief that things are fucked up. 

This is the point we want to stress. A fuller critique of subcultural anarchism, one that includes its informal hierarchies, explosive group dynamics and often white, middle-class nature (to name a few problems), is important, but not the remit of this piece. The crucial point we want to make is that anarchism rots when it loses contact with the broader project of collective emancipation, becoming an irrelevance at best and a safety valve for dissent at worst. 

The exact mechanisms by which revolutionary anarchist organisations, full of comrades with good intentions, slowly relegate themselves to subcultural status would be a very important piece of analysis to pull together, but that is not the aim of this pamphlet. Whether we like it or not, our movement has become a subcultural phenomenon. This is the issue we need to deal with. 

The move towards horizontalism in mass movements is increasingly evident. But where are the anarchists? Sitting back and rolling our eyes at the obvious shortcomings. These shortcomings should be the focus of our work, not our reason to abstain. XR, the favorite punchbag of the green anarchist scene, for all its problems, was an attempt to popularise direct action and people's assemblies using a (semi) decentralised affinity group structure...and a lot of people were into it. We should have been all over this. Driving its often half-baked ideas to their logical conclusions and showing that things could have been better, or, equally legitimately, funnelling people away from XR towards more grounded, revolutionary modes of organising. Neither of these were going to happen by complaining to each other in our closed-off subcultures. If XR had been treated as an opportunity to spread anarchist ideas and modes of organising (rather than an excuse to feel smug), imagine the dynamism and the energy that the green anarchist movement could have right now. Instead, all that energy has now dissipated.

If our strategy hinges on people joining our small, subcultural collectives, we guarantee ourselves complete irrelevance. Our strategy must be the exact opposite - we must (re)join the people. If this is something we are able to do, our small numbers will not necessarily be a disadvantage. In Spain in the 1930s, for example, there was a period when the leadership of the CNT risked becoming increasingly reformist. But the roughly 3000-strong FAI faction, by having a unified organisation and focussed ideas, was able to reassert an anarchist consciousness back into the mass organisation. The effect of this was one of the most stunningly developed episodes of revolutionary history. This idea of a coherent anarchist organisation - able to develop strategy and offer a leadership of ideas as the FAI did, has been systematized under the anarchist ideology of especifismo.

Especifismo

In Uruguay in the 1960s and 70s a variety of anarchism known as especifismo developed, with the specific aim of trying to overcome the marginal position of anarchists at a time when intense class conflict was taking place. Taking inspiration from the Platformist ideas developed by Makhno and others after their failures in Russia, the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU) believed in the need for an anarchist organisation which would be tightly knit and highly organised. Members of this group aimed to “socially insert” themselves into (i.e., take part in) mass movements such as trade unions or student groups where they would argue for anti-state, directly democratic politics, and show by example the effectiveness of organised anarchist methods. Their approach required carefully choosing struggles which were conducive to organising mass campaigns and radicalising large numbers, sometimes leading them to focus on less militant but more popular causes.

This strategy was extremely effective – with roughly 80 militants the FAU and associated groups had influence over one-third of Uruguay’s unions in some of its most important sectors during a time of enormous popular revolt. As a result, anarchism remains a respected and influential ideology in the region to this day.

Additionally, an armed faction of the federation served as a tool for supporting worker and other struggles: expropriating funds, kidnapping capitalists and so on. This was in marked contrast to typical leftist strategies of the time, which saw organised armed struggle as primary, allowing the guerrillas (e.g., Castro and co. in Cuba) to take control of the state apparatus after fighting a war on behalf of (rather than as part of) the oppressed classes. The FAU rejected such “substitutionism” and fought for decades to build popular power, striving constantly to escalate class conflict and help empower the masses to fight for collective liberation.

What does this mean for us?

We are convinced that a high degree of organisation and the strategic question of how to build popular power need to be essential priorities of anarchists today. We know from history that the groups that succeed are those that are best able to meet people's needs in moments of crisis. This is true of emancipatory movements like the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Kurdish liberation movement in Rojava, but it is also true of our enemies' efforts. Global neoliberalism came about through highly organised right-wing think tanks (whose ideas were previously considered marginal) promoting their ideas during times of crisis. Similarly around the world fascist and authoritarian forces have been able to gain power because when catastrophe struck, they were able to step in, offer "solutions", and thus reorganise entire societies. In short, in moments of crisis, it is often the most organised strategists that win. And moments of crisis, as we all know, keep coming - and they will only get harsher and more frequent. Of course, our goal of liberatory social revolution cannot be implemented through top-down structures. Convincing those in positions of power will not work, nor will replacing them with a new bunch of rulers - it must be the people themselves who take up and embody revolutionary ideas. The role of anarchists must be to help build up organised and resilient popular power in order to make our goals a reality.

A number of approaches are possible. Anarchists can look ahead, attempting to anticipate and understand ruptures and plan broad interventions at the national level that are geared towards people taking power into their own hands - as was done with the Don't Pay campaign. Another approach is for anarchist groups to get rooted in relatively small geographical areas, such as towns, neighbourhoods and cities, and build from below - developing workers' power, people's assemblies and a local solidarity economy so that when crisis comes we have the organizations and systems that can meet people's needs. This approach is embodied, among others, by Cooperation Jackson in the US. The winning strategy might involve some blend of these two approaches, or something else entirely.

What seems clear though is that organisation and strategy are the key to success. We think that the concepts developed in especifismo offer us an effective structure to pursue the question of strategy while maintaining that crucial unity between theory and practice and allowing us to break out of our subcultural position. Here is a very short outline of those concepts:

Organisational Dualism is the idea that the terrain of struggle can be broadly separated into two levels, which are guided by slightly different logics. The social/popular level is the mass movements, such as labour unions, community unions, student movements, environmental movements etc. People on the whole do not join these groups because they want a libertarian communist society, but because they are the subject of some form of oppression. These movements help them face and challenge this oppression collectively, often improving their lives significantly. The political/ideological level is the revolutionary organisation focussed on the broader project of social emancipation. People tend to join this level because they are ideologically committed to bringing down capitalism and the state.

A core principle of especifismo is that the social level must be the one that is driving the change. However, mass movements often succumb to the pitfalls of reformism, become deeply undemocratic, or fail to channel their energy in an effective and emancipatory direction because of lack of strategy, coordination and broader political perspective. Because of this, there is a need for a group that aims to deeply understand the conditions of oppression and the requirements of transformation, and hence works as a force for revolution that propels the mass movements in a more radical direction. This is the political level, known in the context of especifismo as the "specific anarchist organisation". Contrary to authoritarians, especifismo necessitates an ethic of horizontality between the political and the social level. As explained in the important especifist text Social Anarchism and Organisation, the anarchist organisation "does not judge itself superior [to the social level], it does not fight for social movements or in front of them. It struggles with social movements" and, from a position of equality and honesty, helps them avoid reformist pitfalls and build up revolutionary strength.

The Specific Anarchist Organisation is the major vehicle through which especifist anarchists organise themselves, gather their ideas, and strategise how and where they can be most effective in building revolutionary popular power. Coherence of theoretical and strategic outlook is considered far more important than sheer numbers. This focus on a tightly-knit group that shares a high level of understanding is crucial for the group to be able to act effectively and not get constantly bogged down in debates that go round in circles. The aim is to be constantly working out the best way to build and aid mass movements in the struggle against capitalism and the state, through the practice of social insertion.

Social Insertion is the core practice of especifismo. It is the process by which anarchists become active in mass movements with a view to building up and defending the revolutionary and democratic tendencies that often exist at the rank and file of mass movements. This is done through a sincere participation in the work of the mass movement and the defence of tendencies that are most in accordance with anarchism's revolutionary and libertarian drive. These include, but are not limited to: autonomy, combativeness, direct action, federalism and direct democracy. Clearly the exact combination depends on context. These are argued for because they are understood by anarchists to be the most effective means that social movements have to achieve their goals of social transformation.

Social insertion is different from the 'entryism' associated with more authoritarian tendencies in that its aim is the development of the movement itself as a revolutionary force rather than an attempt to bring movements under the heel of a vanguard party. As such, anarchists practising social insertion do not try to get into a position of power in order to tow a mass movement in a certain direction - instead they remain at the rank and file of movements and spread their ideas through discussion, persuasion and demonstration. If people are not interested in the suggestions of anarchists, then so be it - forcing through our ideas by coercive means is completely out of line with the maxim at the heart of anarchism - that people must be the tools of their own emancipation.

Our Revolutionary Project Needs an Update

Maybe one of the most important qualitative advantages that our generation has is how much information about emancipatory struggles and the forms of repression is at our fingertips. Both the vast range of revolutionary experiments that have taken place over the last 150 years and the accessibility of that information give us a distinct advantage, an advantage that comrades before us never had. This well of information is where we should be looking. Not with the aim of a dogmatic copy-and-paste approach, or to lose ourselves in nostalgia, but to arm ourselves with the ideas and understandings of how to organise ourselves right now. 

For this to be meaningful, however, it has to be applied to the world as it exists today.

The following are three areas that we think require fresh revolutionary thinking by anarchists in the imperial core. This is by no means a comprehensive or even deeply thought-through list - it attempts to illustrate the fact that gaps exist and need to be filled by our ideas and experiments.
The first is of course the ecological crisis, a phenomenon that we know all too well has already wiped out countless human lives, and that poses an existential threat to our species and many others. In the imperial core, the climate crisis will likely soon change the conditions of our society beyond recognition. Does this necessitate an overhaul of the revolutionary strategy or a call to double down on the most successful strategies that have been used over the last century?
The second is shifting class dynamics. In simple terms, we must ask where does the class struggle and economic forms of oppression - traditionally the linchpins of the socialist project - fit with our struggle today? Capitalism has changed since the era of classical anarchism, but what does this really mean? Should we aim to revive the class struggle, adapt it, or leave it behind? 
The third is the continuous erosion of the social fabric of our society and the new forms of alienation that it is creating. If the Situationist's concept of the spectacle was useful in understanding the social alienation of modern capitalist society 50 years ago, and the commodification of everyday life has continued at a dizzying rate since then - what is true now? And what does this mean for the project of emancipation?
As Murray Bookchin noted, the key question of "how libertarian socialism can be achieved— [is] a debate that has been languishing for years". It is time to revive this debate in earnest, and start thinking again about how a free society can be built and defended.

So - let's stop being shocked at the various atrocities of capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy and the state, and start to focus on these three fundamental questions:
Where are we?
Where do we want to be? 
And how do we get there?

Conclusion

 
The opening lines of the Delo Truda group's call for a more organised anarchism, ring as true today as they did nearly 100 years ago when they were tying to make sense of their defeat the hands of the Bolsheviks:

Despite the force and unquestionably positive character of anarchist ideas, despite the clarity  and completeness of anarchist positions with regard to the social revolution, and despite the heroism and countless sacrifices of anarchists in the struggle for Anarchist Communism, it is very telling that in spite of all this, the anarchist movement has always remained weak and has most often featured in the history of working-class struggles, not as a determining factor, but rather as a fringe phenomenon.

The only group who will determine whether or not anarchism remains a fringe phenomenon in the 21st century is us - the anarchists of today.

If we remain in our subcultures, revolutionary change - if it happens at all - will happen despite us. If we break out, we have a world to win.

Further readings
Social Anarchism and Organisation - FARJ
Create a Strong People: Contributions to the debate on Popular Power - Felipe Corrêa
Turning the Tide: An Anarchist Program for Popular Power - Black Rose Anarchist Federation / Federación Anarquista Rosa Negra
Anarchism, Power and Government, in FREE CITIES: Communalism and the Left - Murray Bookchin edited by Eirik Eiglad
Bakunin, Malatesta and the Platform Debate: The question of anachist political organization - Felipe Corrêa and Rafael Viana da Silva
Wither the State - Mason Herson-Hord

Comments

Battlescarred

3 weeks 4 days ago

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 1, 2024

Who exactly are the Stoking the Embers Collective? Never heard of this group before.