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April 16

A Critical Response to “For an Anti-Sectarian Revolutionary Left”

What follows is a critical response to an article that appeared on the Radical Education Department website that argued for a broad popular front of anti-capitalist groups.

This piece is part of an ongoing discussion within RED about revolutionary strategy.  It responds to ED’s “For an Anti-Sectarian Revolutionary Left: 10 Hypotheses.”   Like ED’s piece, it doesn’t speak for all of RED but instead hopes to help spark further debate and discussion in our group and outside it.

The following is a response to my comrade ED’s provocative “hypotheses” on creating an anti-sectarian left.  I offer this response in a spirit of comradely appreciation and disagreement.

The ideas in this essay are still in formation though. Like ED’s piece it contains only “hypotheses.”  Here that means I offer some possible ways of framing the major tasks facing revolutionaries, especially anarchists, today.  Because they are hypotheses they are deeply incomplete, part of ongoing experiments.  They need further development, especially through critique by comrades near and far in light of our collective experiences.

“I argue that the most important task ahead is helping to build up revolutionary anarchistic power, rather than trying to bridge socialists, anarchists, and communists.” 

I disagree with ED’s idea of an “anti-sectarian left” as a primary strategic goal that can help build a revolutionary struggle.  Instead, I argue that the most important task ahead is helping to build up revolutionary anarchistic power, rather than trying to bridge socialists, anarchists, and communists.

To make this case, I say ED overlooks some of the real conditions radicals face in the United States.  Those conditions are fueling a broad-based anarchistic upsurge of revolt.  Today, I’ll argue, that surge of forces is the most revolutionary force for challenging capitalism in the US.  It is responding to the most essential developments of capital, and it is levelling the most radical critique of, and challenge to, those developments.

So the main question today isn’t so much “How can we bridge the divides between anarchists, communists, and socialists?” as: “How can we best help build up broadly anarchistic revolutionary struggle?”  The question of “bridging divides” becomes a limited and narrow tactical question that (I argue) should be subordinated to the primary strategic one.

1. Strategic divides and an anarchistic “center of gravity”

My disagreement, though, shouldn’t cover over some basic places ED and I agree.  First, I agree about how important it is to build mass revolutionary power across (some of) the boundaries that divide radical struggles.  Some of those divisions only weaken the dominated class.  Many important groups and movements emerge, experiment, and then disappear in separation from each other, without being able to learn from each other and hand on their lessons and ideas to those who carry on the fight after them.  I just disagree about which divides we should focus on bridging.

And I also agree with ED about how crucial it is to think seriously about revolutionary strategy.  Our enemy—the ruling class—is extremely organized, so effective responses mean thinking seriously about how to out-organize our enemy.  Finally, I do think there’s a place for coordination between anarchists, communists, and socialists—though in a much more limited way than ED says.

My disagreement is that I think ED’s idea of revolutionary strategy misses some key things in the material conditions radicals are facing today.

  • Today, the state is playing a more and more naked and direct role as enforcer of the ruling class.  With the gutting of social class compromises—the rolling back of laws to protect people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community; the continuing attack on workers and unions; etc.—more naked and direct state repression becomes increasingly important for maintaining the ruling class’ control.
  • This development is no accident.  Capitalism’s current “long wave” of economic development—begun just after World War II—is in a downward phase of slowing growth, overproduction, and low profit rates.  Neoliberalism is the result: a maniacal drive to attack workers, slash and privatize social services, deregulate the economy, etc., all to drive up profit.  However, the ruling class currently has no path into a next long wave of development.[1] It’s main solution at this point is just to increase exploitation of workers at work and strengthen hierarchies of social domination in and outside work.  All this means the state will become more and not less central as the direct tool of class war, to secure growth at any cost.  The rise of fascist elements in the state is a result of this dynamic.
  • So it’s no surprise that the most militant and powerful anticapitalist struggles today tend to be broadly anarchistic: against cops, against patriarchy, against prisons, against borders, against fascism.  In other words, these struggles are developing an anticapitalism that is also fundamentally against the state.  Such revolts are hardly new—they have roots stretching back decades and longer.  But they are surging in power to challenge the more naked authoritarianism that marks capitalist development today.  Their power was on display in the Occupy ICE movement, in which many anarchistic struggles converged (see RED’s compilation of writings coming out of that movement: vol. 1 here, vol. 2 here.).

(I call this upsurge “anarchistic” instead of “anarchist” because in many cases it isn’t explicitly identifying as anarchist.  But it embodies a bottom-up, militantly anti-state, anti-border, prison-abolitionist, anti-patriarchy, anti-bureaucracy power developing within the dominated class, making it a non-sectarian anarchistic force.  And it’s broader and more powerful than the specifically anarchist scene, though the two do often overlap and in various ways feed off each other.)

  • The revival of large-scale worker revolt—in the teacher strikes—has also been one of the more important developments for radicals in recent decades.  Worker uprisings tend to be held in check by bureaucratic/reformist trade unions.  But we’re seeing a rise of rank-and-file, militant, and even revolutionary union struggle, like in the wildcat elements of the teacher strikes and in the explosive growth of the IWW (which has had some important wins and developments in the UK and here in America).  Since the ruling class will only be increasing its attack on workers, their struggles from below beyond trade unions and the Democratic Party will be more and more important.  New possibilities are opening up for worker struggle to push in more radical, more anarchistic directions.

With these conditions in mind, I think it will only drain and divert the surge of radical energy to focus on building connections between socialists, communists, and anarchists.

For example: under the conditions I just sketched, it is important not to strategically align ourselves with even the most radical socialist struggles that are trying to influence the left wing of the Democratic Party.  Those kinds of national efforts will channel revolutionary energies into something that cannot be a source of radical power.  With the long-term economic slowdown, the state will need to be more and more directly repressive and push austerity just to keep capitalism working. We can’t forget Syriza: even if Bernie or Warren win, they will have to push neoliberal austerity and repression to make sure capitalism survives.  And in the meantime we will exhaust ourselves.

More than this, the divisions between socialists, anarchists, and communists can at times be overwrought, but they are still very real and ongoing. They aren’t merely a historical relic.  So even when we’re trying to work together for very small tactical goals (recent experience shows), the sheer amount of energy and time needed to work through these divisions is enormous and exhausting.  That means time/energy expenditure needed to center that connection-building as a basic strategy, like ED suggests, would be exponentially greater.  Again, the effort would drain the crucial centers of anarchistic revolt that are now developing.

Finally: because of the sheer amount of time/energy needed to build bridges across socialists/anarchists/communists, most of our time would be spent talking to other “officially” radical groups (communist groups, anarchist groups, etc.).  But it’s essential that we move past merely the“officially” activist arena—to build up radical organizations that can connect radical anarchistic struggles at multiple levels:

(a) among radical, anarchistic organizations;

(b) among anarchistic radicals working inside important, though more reformist, orgs (less radical unions or groups/coalitions supporting people in jail, for ex.);

(c) among people across the dominated class who could be radicalized, and/or who are very often already part of more informal networks of mutual aid and struggles against patriarchy, cops, bosses, state bureaucracies, etc. etc.

So instead of focusing on a “pan-leftism” in ED’s sense, I think the main revolutionary task is helping build the revolutionary power of broadly anarchistic elements.  My sense is, we need to help build up the “center of gravity” that can help support and connect radical anarchistic struggles for mass power to challenge capitalism.

I mean helping support/connect radical struggles against cops, ICE, prisons, borders, misogyny, bosses, etc. etc.  Of course such struggles in many places and ways.  They happen at work outside it, across the cities and towns we live in.  Some are more formal—in “activist” groups.  Many are more informal—like in groupings of community members or workers quietly resisting the power of bureaucrats, misogynists, politicians, and bosses.  These anarchistic forces are spread across the “left” spectrum.  They’re not only in radical groups but also on the more radical edges of some reformist or socialist or or other kinds of projects, pushing them to be more anarchistic.

Building power wouldn’t just mean supporting/helping build/connect explicitly “anarchist” groups.  It would also and especially mean supporting and helping build/connect broader, formal/informal anarchistic struggles at work/across our communities; in radical groups/on the radical edge of more reformist groups.

So to summarize: I think a central task ahead is helping build up and connect radical anarchistic groups.  But I also think it’s just as important to help build up/connect anarchistic struggle at the radically anarchistic edge of reformist groups too.

In other words, I’m saying one essential need today is an anarchistic “center of gravity” of radical, anarchistic struggles, able to help connect/coordinate/cohere the power of those struggles.  (Here I’m echoing groups like Black Rose/Rosa Negra doing great work on all these fronts.)

2. An emerging anarchistic strategy?

What would it look like to help build up that “center of gravity”?

I think between anarchistic struggles have already been developing in many places for some time, like in BR/RN, the more anarchistic forces in bureaucratic and radical unions, in the anti-ICE movement in the summer of ‘18, and city-wide anarchist coordinating councils in NY and elsewhere.

How might we also build from here? Where in society should we focus on building up an anarchistic center of gravity?

To answer this strategic question, I think we need to step back and offer a sense of what capitalism’s basic levers of power are, to guide where and how to build power that can push back.  I’ll argue that challenging capitalism means challenging its two, equally important, quasi-independent foundations: hierarchy and profit.

The first foundation is hierarchy.  Capitalism has to constantly remake and expand and deepen social and economic hierarchies.  Hierarchies of gender/nationality/ability/race/wealth/income/etc. interlock in various ways, ensnaring the dominated class outside work and inside it.  Social hierarchies are machines to extract obedience.  They do this through institutions like the police, prisons, all state bureaucracies, school at every level, the family unit, religion, etc.  Institutions like these try to create docile, manageable people. They exist to survive and reproduce themselves and expand/deepen their control.

The second foundation is profit.  Capitalism’s earth-destroying growth comes from its mania for profits—whether in factories or non-traditional workplaces at home or in our cars for Lyft or via our iphones.  Corporate and financial firms survive only if they extract ever more profit from workers.

The two foundations are different and distinct.  But they’re deeply interconnected and equally important.  Capitalism has to have both foundations.  On the one hand, workplace domination needs hierarchies of gender, race, sexuality, ability, wealth, income, etc.  For example, those hierarchies interlock to make some groups hyper-vulnerable, like undocumented immigrants, making it possible for bosses to exploit some workers to the extreme, maximizing profit while also dividing workers against each other.  On the other hand, the institutions that enforce society’s hierarchies—the police, the military, jails, schools, prisons, and bureaucracies, etc.—use the capitalist economy to develop and grow.  The money they use to expand/grow/deepen control is rooted in the profits stolen from workers at work.  The ruling class invests its profits in institutions of hierarchy to make hierarchies even more effective at racial/sexual/gender/ability control.

So building towards revolution would mean helping build/connect anarchistic struggles against hierarchies in the cities/towns we live—against cops, prisons, schools, the family unit, the state, etc.  And it would mean helping build/connect anarchistic fights against work.  Finally, it would mean coordinating between the fight against hierarchies all of these.

One way to do all this could be an emerging, non-dogmatic “neo-syndicalism” that is starting to develop.  Instead of focusing on workplace resistance (like some anarcho-syndicalists say we should), neo-syndicalism might stress connecting workplace and community struggles.  Neo-syndicalism might mean radical councils helping connect/coordinate groups of anarchistic workers and community members in their struggles across a city or town.  And these could be coordinated on a much broader scale—nationally and internationally.  With the best of the syndicalist tradition, we’d want a federation of autonomous organizations, though more formalized and coordinated than a spokescouncil.  Such a structure could help more clearly coordinate, cohere, and develop anarchistic revolutionary power than currently exist while also leaving itself wide open to future developments.

Something like this began to emerge in Occupy’s (still quite problematic) camps.  Those camps started connecting some radical struggles across cities or towns, as well as on the national and international levels too.  Before Occupy, the 2009 campus occupations in California developed some ad hoc coordinating of campus-wide struggles of workers/students.  In a different way,  Occupy ICE brought together radical struggles in cities and opened lines of communication between them nationally.  None of these experiments were perfect.  But inside them we can see the buds of an emerging, anarchistic struggle-in-development.

Conclusion

I am arguing that the main revolutionary task today is helping connect and build up, out of a divided anarchistic scene, a revolutionary and anarchistic center of gravity.  But in saying this I don’t deny there is a place for coalitions of communists, anarchists, and socialists.  I see this, though, as a very limited, temporary project to accomplish narrow tasks.  For example: sometimes socialists, anarchists, and communists do need to coordinate to shut down fascists marching in our streets. That kind of work is essential, and certainly must not be abandoned.  But I want to emphasize the difference between such temporary, tactical projects and the broader strategy of building revolutionary power.  And I see that more important strategic task as helping forge a coordinated, revolutionary, anarchistic power.


[1] See Michael Roberts, The Long Depression (2018); and Francois Chesnais, Finance Capital Today (2018)

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