This year marks the 140 year anniversary of the first anarchist International held at St.Imier, Switzerland, in 1872. In celebration of the anniversary an international gathering was called in St.Imier in mid-August. A contingent of Collective Action militants attended the gathering along with thousands of other anarchists from around the world to discuss politics, create new international ties and, of course, have some fun.
From August 8th to the 12th, the small Swiss town was taken over by anarchists attending the gathering. It was hard to calculate the exact number of attendees as the venues and sleeping sites was spread across the entire town and there was a constant flow of people leaving and joining the gathering throughout the week, but estimates have ranged from 2,000 to 4,000. Needless to say with such huge numbers of attendees, and an international gathering of this magnitude being so rare for the current generation of anarchists, the organisation of the event held up in many areas but also had it shortcomings.
The accommodation for the attendees consisted of three camp sites and a sports hall hired by the organisers, and many more attendees hiring out hotel rooms and houses. The two biggest camp sites were located on top of Mount Soleil, and for a small fee of 10 Swiss Francs transport from St. Imier to Mount Soleil was provided for the duration of the gathering via a funicular. The Collective Action militants were staying in one of these camp sites on Mount Soleil and the facilities provided were very good. There was an adequate amount of toilets and hot showers available all day and night. A kitchen was present to provide breakfast every morning and then double up as a bar to provide alcohol in the evening. The camp sites were big enough for everyone’s tents and allowed enough room for fires in the evening that provided a good environment to drink and get to socialise with comrades from around the world. Despite the chilling nights and one alcohol induced violent situation the accommodation was well organised and made as comfortable as camping can be.
The food throughout the gathering was fantastic! There were three kitchens in all organised by three different food collectives. One kitchen already mentioned was located in the Mount Soleil camp sites that only provided breakfast. The other two kitchens were located in St. Imier, one by the book fair and the second in the middle of the town conveniently located between the venues. The two kitchens in St. Imier provided breakfast, lunch and dinner, and tea, coffee and water throughout the day. Considering the huge amount of people the kitchens had to provide food for, all the meals well cooked, tasty and well proportioned. The kitchens were well organised and based on co-operation allowing people outside of the kitchen collectives to prepare and serve food. There was a recommended daily donation of 10 Swiss Francs per day for the meals and unfortunately it appears that not everyone respected this because on the last day the kitchens were stressing that they were currently down 3,000 Swiss Francs.
All the daily activities took place in St. Imier, and the social centre, ‘Espace Noir’, was the main hub. There were another 7 venues spread across the town that were holding talks, round-tables, gigs and movie showings throughout the week, and the local ice rink was drained for the week long book fair. Unfortunately the spaces, organisation and content of the talks had many shortcomings.
The format to the talks was too open and at times frustratingly disorganised. Minus a few talks there was no system in place for translations which lead to many talks opening by asking if someone was able/willing to translate x language into y and z. It wasted a lot of time that could have been used to talk about more topics in greater detail and, at its worst, lead to arguments and vital details being lost in translation.
The content for many of the talks and round tables also lacked depth. A lot of them felt like introductions to topics, which is fine if talks are provided for the more seasoned anarchist as well, which in this case were not. Anarchists from all over the world were present and not enough effort was made to allow the experiences faced by anarchists in different regions of the world to be shared. Moreover the talks were frustratingly retrospective, which again is not a bad thing if they are balanced out with talks on praxis, or used to highlight problems we face today, but this was not the case. Historic internationals have debated both the social ills of the day as well as attempting to find unity on the relevant praxis to create a coherent anarchist response but this was missing from many of the presentations. There is by no means a shortage of topics in this area - from new social movements (like Occupy and anti-austerity coalitions) to the emergence of new tactics in struggle ( like direct unionism or insurrrectionary riots). Instead references to these things were either cursory or needlessly triumphalist, for example, uncritically citing the Occupy movement as a "gain" for anarchist ideas. Areas of essential interest, such as the situation in Greece, were presented by outside observers and raised disputes from Greek activists in attendance. The plenary was also marred by a similar incoherence of political vision with interventions ranging from the essential adoption of Esperanto to the need for the formation of a parliamentary party!
We were also forced to question as to why in a congress held in the middle of an economic crisis, and presented publicly to the press as "an anarchist response to debt", was only one round-table devoted to the subject. This meeting, billed as 'the Crisis and the PIIGS', also raised critical questions on the interpretation and cause of the crisis, particularly the views of the IAF-IFA representative that it could be largely attributed to the activity of a select core of financial institutions and banks. However aside from the intervention of a member of the CGA (Coordantion des Groupes Anarchistes) and the excellent presentation by Paul Bowman of the Workers Solidarity Movement (the technicalities of which I suspect were largely lost in translation) no space for debate and criticism was permitted on this topic in the limited time available. This should have been a central theme of the congress.
There was also a lack of gender and colour politics, no safe space from the beginning and next to zero accessibility for the disabled. As a movement we need to be tackling problems of inclusiveness and accessibility, and creating a safe environment for everyone to express their opinions, concerns and struggles so we can learn to counteract these areas of struggle. Unfortunately, this seems to be a problem still prevalent within the international anarchist movement.
The general organisation of the event was carried out by a small collective that spent most of its time isolated in a room in Espace Noir. If another international gathering is called in the future it would be great to see anarchist principles of co-operation and shared responsibility at the forefront of the organising. If this were the case we probably would see a lot of the highlighted problems remedied. In spite of the negatives we would like to congratulate the organisers of the gathering as the amount of hours put in to organising such an event must be astronomical, but we should learn not to make the same mistakes twice.
During the gathering the CA militants were able to build new international contacts and further forward some debates within our own theory. The Anarkismo tent and delegates had the biggest influence on us, showed the highest level of organisation as well as, in spite of a more limited programme, the clearest political content. This included an excellent presentation by the FARJ (Federação Anarquista do Rio de Janeiro) on the history and lessons to be drawn from the First International, something again that was conspicuously missing from the main programme. It was also one of the few disabled accessible spaces.
One stand-out talk we attended was by a Zimbabwean comrade known as Biko - connected to the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front (ZACF) - on the historical and contemporary political and economic situation in Zimbabwe. The talk was comprehensive, eye opening and the start of a new friendship for us. It gave us an opportunity to hear about the situation in Zimbabwe from the other side of the news coverage. This was presented as an anarchist communist perspective but also incorporated the experiences and problems faced by everyday workers and trade unionists when trying to organise against the regime. Despite huge repression Biko and his comrades have organised around four fronts consisting of a political studies circle, an arts collective, an Indymedia collective and a permaculture collective that provides herbal remedies for HIV sufferers in communities where medical treatment is inaccessible. The ‘Uhuru Network’ has managed to set up a commune where the four fronts can live collectively. Biko supplied us with CDs made by the network to sell here in the UK - they will be up on our website shortly - and CA will be putting on benefit gigs for these comrades to help supply them with literature and printing equipment for the political studies circle, and recording equipment for the arts collective.
Our meeting with Anarkismo delegates was a high point of the gathering for us, and we would like to send our thanks to them for providing such an informed, stimulating debate. It felt encouraging to be talking and debating comrades that share our passion for political education and critical thinking. It was uplifting to know that some were using an international forum to exchange and debate theories and praxis to better understand how anarchists today need to organise. The breadth of experience was truly astounding and it was great to conduct discussions with like-minded people from across the globe. This was in contrast to other parts of the gathering where it felt that Swiss, French and German (perhaps understandably) anarchists were over-represented.
In all, for the CA militants attending, the gathering was highly enjoyable. As in all big meetings it is often the conversations and debates conducted outside of the official meetings that prove must useful and it was great to be around so many funny, caring and interesting people. We didn’t feel like the shortcomings were big enough to make the gathering unsuccessful but they gave us lessons to take forward to any future international gatherings.