Social democratic anarchists and communist anarchists and the Occupy Movement

Somewhat confused, yet interesting, article on divisions within the #Occupy movement.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 28, 2011

A division exists within the leaderless communities at the heart of the Occupy protests. I would describe this as a split between Social Democratic Anarchists and Communist Anarchists. I use these two terms provocatively, knowing that most of those I refer to would not describe themselves as either. Neither the terms Social Democrat or Communist are especially popular in the U.S., and the latter is often associated with small left-wing sects that those I describe as Communist Anarchists have a low opinion of. It also lately seems that the term “anarchist” is becoming unfashionable again. The terms are meant to indicate both continuity and rupture with the historical left. Since 1917, Social Democracy and Communism referred to two different paths of change. Social Democrats believed in reforming capitalism, so that its benefits would be shared more equitably. Communists believed in overthrowing capitalism. Both created disciplined, bureaucratic organizations to achieve their goals. Both believed attaining state power was crucial, either through elections — usually the path of Social Democrats — or armed struggle — more associated with Communists. Although they often vituperatively denounced each other, they could sometimes work together, as was the case in the 1930s in the U.S., when New Deal reformers, who closely resembled Social Democrats, were strengthened by the organizing efforts of Communists.

Today, we see similar splits, in the U.S. and all over the world, in the context of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and related movements. Some — undoubtedly the majority of participants in the U.S. — wish to reform capitalism. Others would like to destroy capitalism. However, in two crucial respects the participants in the movement–reformers and revolutionaries alike — differ from the old left. They all eschew bureaucratic forms of organization in favor of leaderless modes of organizing. And they all believe that building power from below is more important than strategizing about how to attain and exercise state power. That is why I describe them as “anarchists”, even if they might not adopt that label themselves. Over the next five to ten years, some of these movements may develop electoral wings, but it is difficult to imagine them attaching to these wings the same lofty hopes and dreams that characterized the old left.

So how do these divisions play out in the current movement? Social Democratic Anarchists are associated with the General Assemblies, including a strong belief that assembly decisions are binding, endorsing practices like “consensus decision-making” and “non-violence”, and shouting slogans such as “oppose corporate greed”,”we are the 99%” and “the police are part of the 99%”. In practice, they have adopted anarchist tactics, such as leaderless assemblies and direct action (i.e. occupying parks) to advance a reformist agenda including re-regulation of the banks and jobs programs. Even as there is uneasiness about signing on to a single list of demands, and no real clue as to how such a leaderless, decentralized movement might endorse such a list, it seems apparent that most demands would be drawn from the left-liberal playbook. I should note that without a large movement out in the street pressuring the administration from the left, it is unlikely if not inconceivable that such reforms will be implemented in the U.S. It is a paradoxical movement, attempting to create a fairly disciplined force without leaders, but largely pursuing state oriented policies. Right wing columnist Charles Krauthammer was not far off when he described OWS, which is dominated by Social Democratic Anarchists, as “big government anarchists”.

The Communist Anarchists are much less visible, and many are ambivalent about OWS. Some catchphrases associated with them include “autonomous action”, “diversity of tactics”, “anti-capitalism”, and “the police are the tools of the ruling class.” “Autonomous action” and “diversity of tactics” refer to principles that undermine the authority of the General Assembly and its frequent invocation of non-violence and even unease with violating laws. Even though OWS has successfully defied the mayor of New York City and remains in the park,the General Assembly continues to use the “human microphone”, which makes discussion slow and painful. Occupied Oakland, where Communist Anarchists are stronger, just ignores the rules against amplified sound. Rather than advocating a set of reformist laws, Communist Anarchists try to dissolve the system and socialize the wealth from the bottom up, through such actions as squatting abandoned buildings and ignoring copyright laws. Nevertheless, they are not exactly dogmatically anti-state, inasmuch as they fight to maintain institutions like libraries, and demand free services including higher education and mass transit.
Perhaps predictably, there is not much love lost between Social Democratic Anarchists and Communist Anarchists. The former have been known to tell journalists that they regard the Communist Anarchists as paid provocateurs. The Social Democratic Anarchists have shouted down those advocating no cooperation with the police at general assemblies. The Communist Anarchists often heap contempt on the phrase “We are the 99%”, which they see as obscuring class and racial differences except for those between the 1% and the 99%, and implicitly prioritizing the needs of the falling middle class over the more genuinely precarious at the bottom. They sometimes intimate that the social democratic anarchists are becoming, if they are not already, tools of the reformist ruling class which seeks to dampen, rather than spur, rebellion.

Yet, and this is not so apparent to either side, they have in some ways productively strengthened each other. Although it is rarely stated, a major inspiration for Occupy Wall Street was the Occupy Berkeley movement of 2009, where Communist Anarchists played a prominent role. It is hard to see how the occupy practice could have gone national without being toned down, as the Social Democrat Anarchists proceeded to do with Occupy Wall Street, promoted by the magazine Adbusters. But notwithstanding the seemingly marginal role that Communist Anarchists play in OWS, they have in fact been crucial to the movement’s growth. The unruly marches that produced over-responses from the police, and, as a result, massive publicity and sympathy for the movement, were unruly largely because anarchist communists ignored prescriptions to stay within legal boundaries, i.e. remain on the sidewalk. The swelling numbers attracted to the OWS are largely drawn to the Social Democrat Anarchists, but they’ve also increased the numbers of Communist Anarchists.

And this screw will probably turn yet again in the near future. OWS is about to run into something of a brick wall. No reform measures are likely in the near future in the U.S. The next election cycle will more likely weaken the prospects for reforms (with Republican gains in congress and, possibly, a Republican president) than strengthen them. It is not clear, to say the least, that the Social Democrat Anarchists have any strategy in mind besides calling for more demonstrations. This will start to wear down their supporters.

But in other countries, where this dynamic has already advanced a little further, the Communist Anarchists do have a response. The strategy devolves action away from the cumbersome General Assembly to neighborhood assemblies which take direct action against foreclosures, or hospital closings, or perhaps support striking workers. These “autonomous actions” may prove attractive to those tired of ineffectual demonstrations. We may see something like this in some cities in the U.S.

At one end, efforts to include more and more people in movements can collapse into “everyone ultimately shares the same values” platitudes. At the other, radicalism can plow into the “fight the people”, misanthropic cul-de-sac. Between those, there is some room to simultaneously stake one’s position about the best strategies and tactics for the moment, while recognizing that those who come to different conclusions may be allies, rather than police provocateurs or Trojan horses for the ruling class.

Ultimately, the fate of each wing of the movement will be decided in good part by the ability of the American state to reform itself. To the degree that reforms can be incorporated which dampen inequality and restore some sense of fairness for a substantial majority, the more radical, Communist Anarchist wing will find itself marginalized and isolated. Contrarily, if it is unable to do so, reformist Social Democratic Anarchists will likely find themselves losing the hearts and minds of activists to the more radical tendency. Just to get to this point, however, the movement will need to grow in both numbers and militancy.

Originally posted on October 23, 2011 on Left Eye on Books

Comments

bastarx

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by bastarx on October 28, 2011

For an author who I'm guessing isn't that familiar with either anarchism or left-communism that's a pretty decent article.

Nothing to do with Occupy X but I've been saying for a long time to the few people willing to listen that while the social democratic (including all the species of Leninoids here) and communist currents within Marxism decisively split apart sometime in the 1920s such a split has sadly never really happened within anarchism. However libcom has played a positive role towards such a split with the routing of the neo-platformists who are the predominant organised tendency of social democratic anarchism.

Battlescarred

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on October 28, 2011

I don't like this expression "social-democratic anarchist" very much. Either they're social-democrats or they are anarchists. I sincerely hope this term does not come into wide use as it did with "anarcho-capitalist" ( not a bit anarchist, completely capitalist!)

KARABAS

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by KARABAS on October 28, 2011

Maybe the author should have used the term 'active social(media) democrats.'

In my opinion, discussing semantics when it comes to anarchism will get you no where.

Just because the Tea Party movement holds rallies and doesn't have a clearly designated leader, would you also call them "Tea Party anarchists' ?

Fall Back

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Fall Back on October 28, 2011

Battlescarred

I don't like this expression "social-democratic anarchist" very much. Either they're social-democrats or they are anarchists. I sincerely hope this term does not come into wide use as it did with "anarcho-capitalist" ( not a bit anarchist, completely capitalist!)

Hm, while I agree re: anarcho-capitalists, surely it's different with "social-democratic anarchists"?

I mean, for example neo-platformists are clearly leftist, and their politics are basically libertarian social democracy. But I don't think arguments along the lines of "are the WSM really anarchist" is really going to be useful.

However, I think it is useful to distinguish leftist anarchists (Anarkismo et al) from communist anarchists (solfed, AF etc). I think "social-democratic anarchism" is a bit of a mouthful (personally I use leftist anarchism, but that's more jargony), but in terms of describing a real set of politics that exist within the mileau, I think it's actually fair enough.

Battlescarred

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on October 28, 2011

Yes, but it's not describing "leftist " anarchists it's describing people who have utilised some of the forms of libertarian organisation- mass assemblies- with none of their content ( so zero per cent anarchist content)
yes , i agree, leftist anarchism is a better term to describe most of today's platformists

Fall Back

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Fall Back on October 28, 2011

You're probably right - I just generally don't think "is X an anarchist" arguments are useful. But then, as you say, anarcho-capitalists can fuck off and I'd definitely denounce them as non-anarchist, which probably negates my point. I'm probably reading this too much through the lens of interaction with the latest wave of UK radical liberals who self-describe as anarchist, when actually it's a very different context.

Battlescarred

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on October 28, 2011

Yes, but as I already said, most of these people DON'T "Self-describe" as anarchists, they're plain old radical liberals full stop and let's call them that rather than "Social-democratic anarchists"

klas batalo

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on October 28, 2011

Peter

However libcom has played a positive role towards such a split with the routing of the neo-platformists who are the predominant organised tendency of social democratic anarchism.

Really? I'd say this really doesn't hold true for the North American scene/space/movement whatever. There are a lot of what could be called small "a" anarchists that are into alternative lifestyles, consensus, non-violence, etc that I'd classify more as the "reformist" tendency. This tendency is probably the largest in the USA. Now I can appreciate what they have to say at times, but I'd say "platformists" are largely focused on class struggle politics, along with the other insurrectionary/left communist types that exist, and propose that we need to actually have a revolutionary rupture instead of a slow reformist process.

I guess if you have to I'd say there are a large amount of anarchists in and around the anarkismo milieu who could also be classified as being within the "Libcom" camp. But really there isn't this "social democratic/Leftist" orientation as much as you'd think over here in the USA. The whole class struggle tendency in the USA right now could be broken down to folks who choose a plurality of approaches everything from working with the trades unions, to doing work with the US IWW, to doing solidarity networks (to use labor as an example)

Juan Conatz

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 29, 2011

I thought this was interesting because it was written by an outsider, yet who noticed the whole 'anarchism as decision making structures' thing that I noticed in Madison, but struggled to really know how to express it.

In Madison, there were really no insurrectionaries (that I knew of), no political organizations of anarchists there. BUT, what was there was this 1990s style anarchism as counter institutions dominance there where decision making structures, etc where the thing. It's the whole form vs content thing really.

fatbongo

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by fatbongo on October 29, 2011

what was there was this 1990s style anarchism as counter institutions dominance there where decision making structures, etc were the thing. It's he whole form vs content thing really..

I'm not too sure what you mean here. Pls explain this some more.

bastarx

12 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by bastarx on October 29, 2011

sabotage

Peter

However libcom has played a positive role towards such a split with the routing of the neo-platformists who are the predominant organised tendency of social democratic anarchism.

Really? I'd say this really doesn't hold true for the North American scene/space/movement whatever. There are a lot of what could be called small "a" anarchists that are into alternative lifestyles, consensus, non-violence, etc that I'd classify more as the "reformist" tendency. This tendency is probably the largest in the USA. Now I can appreciate what they have to say at times, but I'd say "platformists" are largely focused on class struggle politics, along with the other insurrectionary/left communist types that exist, and propose that we need to actually have a revolutionary rupture instead of a slow reformist process.

I guess if you have to I'd say there are a large amount of anarchists in and around the anarkismo milieu who could also be classified as being within the "Libcom" camp. But really there isn't this "social democratic/Leftist" orientation as much as you'd think over here in the USA. The whole class struggle tendency in the USA right now could be broken down to folks who choose a plurality of approaches everything from working with the trades unions, to doing work with the US IWW, to doing solidarity networks (to use labor as an example)

I never said platformists aren't focused on class struggle politics but they are focused on it in such a way (like the original Marxist social democats) that will tend to steer struggles back onto terrain that is safe for capital. The most obvious way they do this is through entanglement with the unions.

klas batalo

12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on October 30, 2011

Maybe on the other side of the pond. Not everyone is the libcom stereotype of L&S and WSM.

klas batalo

12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by klas batalo on October 30, 2011

anarchism as form is so big and possibly "socially inserted" now that you even see the Leninists calling for leaderless movement and horizontalism.

syndicalist

12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on November 1, 2011

sabotage

anarchism as form is so big and possibly "socially inserted" now that you even see the Leninists calling for leaderless movement and horizontalism.

ah, ye ole bait and switch leninism of "state & revolution" days....use anarchist language as bait, reel 'em in and then switch back to the grand leninist hat trick.

syndicalist

12 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by syndicalist on November 2, 2011

Not big on the terminology, but the article isn't bad. It points out legit differences.

I would def. agree with this:

Sabotage:I guess if you have to I'd say there are a large amount of anarchists in and around the anarkismo milieu who could also be classified as being within the "Libcom" camp. ...The whole class struggle tendency in the USA right now could be broken down to folks who choose a plurality of approaches everything from working with the trades unions, to doing work with the US IWW, to doing solidarity networks (to use labor as an example)

I would add that within WSA we have always taken a pluralistic approach in terms of workplace stuff and folks are involved in Solnet stuff as well.

I dunno, I thought the Libcom., etc comment was pretty simplistic and blowhard. Libcom has a special place for those who care to work together, share exchanges, etc....including some of us who have no problem working with folks who are not on Libcom.

Let's just get on with working with folks we choose to work with, rather than blowing a horn no one really wants to hear.