This spring, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series panels on “Radical ideologies today: Marxism and anarchism” in New York, Frankfurt, Halifax, Thessaloniki, and Chicago. The panel description reads: “It seems that there are still only two radical ideologies: Marxism and anarchism. They emerged out of the same crucible — the Industrial Revolution, the unsuccessful revolutions of 1848 and 1871, a weak liberalism, the centralization of state power, the rise of the workers movement, and the promise of socialism. They are the revolutionary heritage, and all significant radical upsurges of the last 150 years have returned to mine their meaning for the current situation. In this respect, our moment seems no different.
There are a few different ways these ideologies have been taken up. Recent worldwide square occupations reflect one pattern: a version of Marxist theory — understood as a political-economic critique of capitalism — is used to comprehend the world, while anarchist practice — understood as an anti-hierarchical principle that insists revolution must begin now — is used to organize, in order to change it. Some resist this combination, claiming that Marxism rejects anti-statist adventurism, and call for a strategic reorganization of the working class to resist austerity, and perhaps push forward a “New New Deal”. This view remains wedded to a supposedly practical welfarist social democracy, which strengthens the state and manages capital. There is a good deal of hand waving in both these orientations with regard to politics, tactics, and the end goal. Finally, there have been attempts to leave the grounds of these theories entirely — but these often seem either to land right back in one of the camps or to remain marginal.
To act today we seek to draw up the balance sheet of the 20th century. The historical experience concentrated in these ideas must be unfurled if they are to serve as compass points. In what ways does the return of these ideologies represent an authentic engagement and in what ways the return of a ghost? Where have the battles left us? What forms do we have for meeting, theoretically and practically, the problems of our present?”
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-Halifax hosted on February 1, 2014, at University of King’s College. The speakers participating in Halifax included Christoph Lichtenberg, Alex Khasnabish, Chris Parsons, and Eva Curry. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found online.
Christoph Lichtenberg: When I think of Marxism and anarchism, I think of two tendencies within the workers’ movement, both of which see themselves as revolutionary, as opposed to the tendency that is known as Social Democracy, which would work through reforms. I think of Marxism as interchangeable with Leninism or Trotsykism. I do not associate it with Maoism or Stalinism. I think of anarchism in its best representation as exemplified by people like Bakunin, Kropotkin, or anacho-syndicalism. There are some commonalities between the two tendencies. I just want to highlight three of them: I think Marxism and anarchism agree on the need for the liberation of humanity through the destruction of capitalism. I also think that we agree on the fact that there is a class struggle going on between the exploiters and the exploited. And finally, I think we agree on the need to destroy the existing, oppressive, capitalist state structure. What happens after that is where we diverge.
The conflict really began with the creation of the alliance with Social Democracy by Bakunin and his followers, and what it meant is that they maintained a somewhat secret organization within the First International and started to publish articles that were critical of Marx. There was a lot of going back and forth over organizational matters, but, as with every organizational dispute, at the heart of it is really politics. The difference in politics between Marxists and anarchists really came to the fore at the 1872 Congress of the First International in The Hague, when there was a big debate between the Bakunin faction and the Marx followers about the role of the state in the transformation towards socialism. The Marxists argued that there was a role of the state in the transformation towards of socialism while followers of Bakunin insisted that the state should immediately be replaced by self-governing workplaces and communes. The Bakunin faction lost that debate and were expelled from the First International for maintaining their secret organization.
Around 1880, Kropotkin and other Russian revolutionaries announced the need for a permanent revolt through word, gun, and dynamite. This set the anarchists, particularly in Russia, on the course of anarchist terrorism, which removed them from the masses and isolated them.
The October Revolution in 1917 is the key event to understanding revolution. The Second International collapsed in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War because the different sections of the International ended up supporting their own governments’ war efforts. So rather than being internationalists, they sided with their own national governments, which Lenin, the Russian revolutionary who led the Bolsheviks, identified as a complete betrayal of the spirit of socialism. The main thing he learned from the collapse of the Second International was the need for revolutionaries to set up a separate organization from the reformists — the need for a vanguard party.
The Bolsheviks built a party that was democratic centralist. That meant there was free discussion within the organization; there was democratic debate and a vote taken. But once a decision was made, it was binding on all members to carry it out whether they originally agreed with it or not. This was for the purpose of bringing about a social revolution.
The Bolsheviks distinguished themselves from other tendencies because they told the masses the truth, whether that was popular at the time or not. They would not waver. They told the truth about the Tsar, bourgeois democracy, and the war. This allowed them to gain the confidence of the workers, which was reflected by their majority in the Soviets in Moscow and Petrograd — the Soviets being workers’ assemblies or workers’ councils where workers and soldiers would meet and discuss how to proceed. They carried out the October Revolution in 1917 and cleared the weak government with very little resistance.
Anarchists will say it is bad to set up the state as the Soviets did, that it will renew oppression. But the state exists as long as class divisions exist, as long as people are divided into different classes in society. Fundamentally you have the choice of either a bourgeois state — the kind of state you have in Canada today, which serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, the wealthy, the rich and powerful — or you can establish, through a revolution, a workers’ state that seeks to advance their interests and protect the new society from counterattacks by the old ruling class. I am a communist, and as such I would like to see the end of the state. But that can only happen when the class divisions have been eliminated and when generalized want is eliminated, and in order to get there we need a substantial development of the means of production. It is not a moral question but one that is grounded in economic realities.
In 1936 a Popular Front government was elected in Spain. This scared the shit out of the bourgeoisie and the land owners. General Franco tried to seize power in order to protect their interests. The workers responded in heroic battles to defend the revolution. The anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) was powerful and dominated economic life. Here is what I think the tragic lesson was: The CNT de factoheld power in Spain through the workers’ committees, but because they were anarchists they refused to assume power. They did not want to become rulers of society; they didn’t want to run the state because that was in conflict with their beliefs. So what happened? The old bourgeoisie continued to run the state when in reality they had nearly been defeated. The CNT, through their anarchist morals, basically handed the power back to the bourgeoisie. That is terrible and a tragedy. The CNT could have pushed forward, but because they tried to adhere to the anarchist principles, they missed a huge opportunity. They then ended up in joint coalitions with the Communist Party of the Stalinists and bourgeois parties. They continued to work with them and wage a war against Franco, which was eventually lost. And again, the reason why it was lost was because the anarchists maintained an alliance with the bourgeoisie in the fight against Franco, and because they didn’t want to scare away their partners, they did not advocate a social revolution. But the need for social revolution was there. This lesson was one of the reasons why I moved from being an anarchist to becoming a Marxist. Once I had investigated that issue, I began to understand that there is something wrong with the theory of anarchism as it was then translated into practice.
Alex Khasnabish: I’d like to first start off by saying that the description for today’s panel is wonderful, provocative, and, from my perspective, a little bit wrong. I think that the premise that Marxism and anarchism are the only significant radical ideologies today is a false position to occupy, and I think it’s steeped in the Western, modern assumption about what the notion of revolution actually means and how it needs to unfold. It’s also steeped in a certain notion of who the appropriate subject of revolution is. Although it’s certainly unfair to paint many of the people who identify with either of these traditions today as espousing this, it is steeped in this view of a fairly white-supremacist, cis-normative, macho, male, working-class subject. This is a problem for all kinds of reasons because oppression and exploitation do not manifest only in the fairly privileged sector of the working class. This doesn’t mean, of course, that anarchism and Marxism aren’t important globe-spanning ideologies. In fact they are and continue to be important today. But it means that when we focus on them so exclusively we tend to miss many other lights in that constellation too.
As I was preparing for this panel, I was re-reading a piece by Andrew Flood called The Nostalgic Left.1 Flood talks about our desire to recuperate a time when things seemed simpler, when there was a pure notion of revolution that we could seize onto, a pure notion of subjects. He is not just talking about Marxists, he is talking about anarchists too. He is talking about high-modernist revolutionary thinking here. This is a response in some ways to the focus on the intersectionality of oppression and exploitation — the complex ways in which systems of power and exploitation work, and how they operate on lines including class, but apart from class too.
I’ve noticed this nostalgia for a high-modern left, particularly recently in the wake of Occupy, the alter-globalization movement, and the Arab Spring. There is an impatience on the part of a lot of people, understandably, in the face of what they see as failures of those different struggles to seize power or to make revolutionary change. For many of us who observe these situations or are involved in them, we feel at times that political efficacy resides in those powerful, dominating, high-modern institutions like the party or the state, and the ideologies that accompany them. I’d like to problematize that — and that’s what I am going to do going forward.
I think that the desire to return to great moments of history — and particularly the great men and great ideologies that are associated with those moments — is understandable but largely futile, and I think it obscures important pasts that lead us beyond that. Again, I would come back to this question: How do we conceptualize this thing we practice called revolution? What does that really mean in the realities of the people in their day-to-day existence? Does it mean, in the classic political science definition, a rapid, total change of a society’s political and economic structures? Well, what does that mean practically? How do we envision that and how can it be realized?
That doesn’t take us away from what I think is the absolute centrality of Marxism as a form of analysis that has ruthlessly unpacked capitalism as a form of exploitation. I don’t think there is a better set of ideas and theories around capitalism. As somebody who would identify as a libertarian socialist, or as some variety of anarchist perhaps, I would also say that the lessons taught by anarchism in terms of its commitments to grassroots organizing, to radical democracy, and to the values of letting a revolutionary process be led by the people themselves rather than by elites who govern them, are also very central. I wouldn’t reduce this debate to either of those camps because I think we have seen in the last thirty years or so a much more interesting turn, which some commentators, Richard Day for instance, have called a more “anarchistic ethic” in many social movements around the globe.
This anarchistic ethic doesn’t espouse any particular variety of anarchist thinking; it doesn’t lay claim to any great men and their great ideas. Rather it is interested in this idea of “horizontality” — of egalitarian practice, radical democracy — binding into it as well a critique of capitalism that is clearly beholden to a Marxist analysis. The rise of this anarchistic ethic, to do terrible injustice to a very diverse history of struggles here, emerges in the ’70s and ’80s out of a palpable frustration on the part of many activists and would-be revolutionaries with the failures of those very forms of organization — with the party, the state, the call of discipline, and the call to solidarity that is often the call to the erasure of difference and marginalization of oppressed voices, the marginalization of non-privileged positions within that discourse. So it’s not just an ideological move. Many of these activists and revolutionaries in the ’70s and ’80s turn to this because they see a greater reflection of their own lived existence and their desire to build complex relations of solidarity with other people in the struggle who are not quantifiable, who don’t fall into simple categories.
So, where does this take us? It takes us through rise of all kinds of anti-authoritarian movements, whether it’s anti-racist organizing, or emerging attempts to build settler-indigenous solidarity, or in the often terribly ignored contributions that feminism — particularly radical and socialist feminism — has made to the fabric of social justice struggle around the world. We have the rise of the alter-globalization movement. Out of this, we have the understandable frustrations, expressed in a high-modernist language, with the inability of that movement to seize on its tactical successes in some moments. We hear it in the admonishments of the World Social Forum, which I am also sometimes critical of, that it become more like a party. We hear it in the voices of self-avowed Leftists here in Canada, the US, and elsewhere, who, in the wake of Occupy and other anti-austerity struggles, try to reduce this complex set of desires for liberation to a ten-point plan on the part of people practicing it: to be clear, to have leaders, to be understandable, to be renderable in the idiom of the time, and to speak the language of power. But isn’t that part of the problem? Isn’t it a problem that in seeking revolution we return to the very forms of domination and the exercise of power that are familiar to us? It’s no accident coming out of the ’60s that we heard the voices of radical feminists demanding that their leaders be held accountable for the perpetuation of things like patriarchy and sexism. Those movements, speaking the language of sexual liberation, didn’t free their members from patriarchy.
Chris Parsons: I came of age politically during a time that coincides with the general decline in the power and popularity of the alter- and anti-globalization movements, but before the emergence of Occupy. One of the reasons why I think it’s important to situate what I want to say in that context is because in some ways I am from a generation that thought that Marxism was not an option, or that the version of Marxism we received and experienced was certainly one that had at least internalized many of the organizational structures of anarchism. That is to say that even before Occupy, if you were twenty-something around 2008 and were involved in community or campus organizing, the default was a sort of “horizontalist” mode of organizing, which primarily did not imagine the possibility of seizing state power. So anarchism is the default, at least politically, for the people of my generation.
The result of that is that I definitely have the very desires that Alex warns you against. I have the high-modernist desire to seize state power because I think we’ve seen time and time again that alternatives over the last decades — at least in the context I have organized in — have been counter-productive. And not just in failing to get us closer to global revolution — they have also done a very poor job of trying to generate reforms. So I think that the realization that many Marxists are coming to now is not to pit reforms against revolutions, but maybe turning to someone like Luxemburg, who suggests that reforms are a way towards revolution. I think in many ways the sort of anarchism that I have experienced has been one that says we want neither reforms nor revolutions, we want something else, and that something else doesn’t get us closer to the sort of widespread liberation on a mass-scale.
The points where Marxism and anarchism diverge are points that need to be interrogated, and we haven’t necessarily done a good job of that. We have often called ourselves Marxists when what we are doing is organizing in ways which are, at least in form, anarchistic; or sometimes we refer to ourselves as anarchists when really the impulse we have is to work towards something that vaguely represents Marxist forms of organizing and Marxist goals. But one thing that we don’t do well is to articulate what our goals are or why it is that we are choosing specific organizational forms.
One of the other things that is important here is that in the last 15 years there’s been a wild swing back-and-forth on what the role and existence of the state is. In the early 2000s, specifically in the work surrounding the alter-globalization movement and particularly with Hardt and Negri, the state had become irrelevant, or at least individual state sovereignty had become irrelevant. Most people would say now that that was an overstatement, and that the reality is that we have to grapple with the question of the state regardless of when we want to do away with it. I think everyone here would agree that the ideal goal is eventually eliminating the state. And in the short term, I think we all agree that eliminating the bourgeois, liberal-democratic state is an immediate goal. The question is what to replace it with and when?
What is the actual target of our political work? Are we aiming at transforming the broad, mass, social movements around us? Are we aiming at targeting the state? Are we aiming at targeting some vague object we might call civil society? Or, is the target of our political work ourselves, in some sort of personal transformation?
In 2014 we might not need the party of the proletariat to lead to the revolution. But we also need to decide that maybe we do need that, and maybe we don’t need collectives or affinity groups, or maybe we need something else. Maybe we need a collective, disciplined organization that cuts somewhere in the middle. But one of the problems is that many of us, who have never experienced the party, have already decided that it is something we need to avoid.
We are in a situation where we close ourselves off and organize simply amongst those who share our beliefs. Do we sit and wait for the objective conditions to magically radicalize the masses or do we go out as people who are more radical than our peers and provide something akin to leadership? We’ve become so scared of any concept of leadership. Sometimes we are scared of having an administrative leadership that can simply make sure we know who is photocopying the pamphlets because we are so afraid of appearing as a hierarchical organization. The problem is also that, if we don’t recognize the tendency towards leadership, we all fall into actual political leadership that we don’t want. I think there’s also fear because we don’t know what it would mean to seize or hold power anymore, but I think that’s a bigger issue than I can address.
Finally, what do we do about social movements? This is similar to the question of leadership. In some ways, there has been a refusal to engage in large unions beyond the local level because we haven’t asked what to do, about leadership, when we are more radical than the general union membership. Instead we look at setting up completely alternative structures. The problem with that is that I can’t comprehend revolution without the masses, and in some ways I still hold out a perhaps archaic, perhaps high-modern belief that unions can be transformed to serve as a vehicle for the will of the working-class — and not the working class as conceived of in 1917, but a working-class that we need to reconceive in 2014.
Eva Curry: Anarchism is commonly understood to be a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian philosophy. If one only pays attention to what anarchism has to say about individual autonomy, I think it is easy to falsely believe that anarchism and Marxism are non-overlapping. But a central idea in anarchism is that there is a dynamic balance between individual autonomy and the communal good that can be attained. In fact, I would argue that these two principles exist not in competition but necessarily reinforce each other through solidarity, mutual aid, and compassionate social interactions. One thing that has come up in the other speakers’ preliminary remarks is that we don’t talk much about what we mean by terms such as authority and power. Following Hannah Arendt somewhat, I would define authority as an entity to which personal autonomy has been ceded. Autonomy is the ability to make decisions about your own thoughts and emotions, and about the integrity of your own body. It entails “freedom from” — freedom from violence, from coercion. It also involves “freedom to” — freedom to individual expression that doesn’t harm others, rights to speech, education, healthcare, a safe place to live, and nutrition.
The feminist movement represents one of the strongest examples that respect for individual autonomy and concern for the common good can reinforce and support one another — from models around enthusiastic consent for sexual and romantic relationships. If I am respecting your autonomy as an individual, then not only is that an ethical imperative, but it makes our relationship together stronger, more fulfilling, and more supportive for myself as well. That’s one sort of small-scale example of where we can see that the idea of respecting individual autonomy and what’s best for the communal good are not competing at all. Instead they intimately reinforce each other.
Humans are social animals and most of us yearn for some sort of community. In the popular conception of what we think of as anarchism, people are drawn to anarchism first because they are interested in this anti-authoritarian idea and the idea of maintaining their individual autonomy — they’re interested in that side of the equation. This may be after many negative experiences with communities that are based on exclusion and hierarchical structures. For those of us who have experienced various forms of oppression — whether they be gender-based oppression, class-based oppression, racial oppression, sexism, hetero-normativism, ableism, or any other class hierarchies that get set up in our society — the idea that I only need to worry about expressing myself can be very compelling. Experiences with oppression can make you very wary of the idea of the common good and of engaging with a group in general because the group in general, in our experience, might be universally negative towards us.
In some ways this is a central tension that defines anarchism: how do we reconcile our need for maintaining our own individual autonomy with that impulse towards community? An anarchist vision of community, unlike the one that many of us grew up on, is built on inclusion rather than exclusion. Trust, in some form, underlies all forms of human relations, so in an anarchist vision of community, ideally, trust is extended to everyone unless they prove themselves to be untrustworthy.
In an anarchist vision of community, I would say that not only is autonomy respected, but care for others is encouraged, supported, and prioritized. So an anarchist vision of community entails loving interactions between romantic partners, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and strangers. In Cindy Milstein’s work and in a lot of contemporary writings about anarchism, the word love comes up a lot, and love as bell hooks or Fred Rogers would define the word, as a verb — not an emotion, but as a practice.
Anarchism is a model for modeling social relations, and to practice it well we can’t focus solely on the relations between individuals, which I have been talking a lot about because I come from a feminist background where we talk about “the personal is the political.” But we can’t ignore our current model of social relations that imposes class systems and hierarchies on all aspects of our lives. So I would say that a Marxist, class-based analysis of economic structures is fundamental to having a solid anarchist practice and understanding of the world, as is a feminist, class-based analysis of patriarchal social and institutional structures, and a class-based analysis of racial and colonial interactions, hierarchies, and structures. But anarchism is also an ethic. It’s an ethic that says that we respect our individual autonomy and that working for the common good grows out of that respect. So anarchism is far more than a collection of tools as the introduction to this panel posits. It’s this ethic, this model for ordering social relations.
Anarchists do focus on the means to achieve social revolutions, not just on the end result. But partly this is out of an idea of what’s effective for organizing and partly it’s out of a conviction, borne by much experience: that our means fundamentally and inextricably shape our ends. So if the end we seek is a society in which ethics are based on this mutual respect vision, then we have to work towards that end rather than running on a tangent or in an opposite direction from it.
CL: I am going to speak to the points of power, forms of organizing, and Occupy. Occupy was a powerful, popular outburst against the excesses of capitalist rule. It was very refreshing, and it bypassed traditional left organizations to a large extent, which is probably a reflection of their failure, I have to add, being a member of one of them.
During my involvement in Occupy I encountered the consensus model of decision-making. I learned was that it didn’t work. While the original idea was that everybody had to agree on what we’re going to do, in many places it was very rapidly modified to something more like an 80/20 or 90/10 consensus. So this great idea of consensus, even among people who seemingly agree on so many things, didn’t work. I think that’s an established fact. That’s an important lesson, and I think it is true that leaders are sometimes needed. Leaders will always emerge, but the important thing is that leaders are accountable to the rest of the group. When it comes to political leadership there seems to be a distrust, partly because we have such a bad political system, and I understand that. But it’s important to understand that political leadership is a form of technical competence or art. You can be a good a political leader in radical politics or you can be a bad one. Some of it depends on your ideas and some of it depends on what style of leadership you have, but it is always fundamental that there are processes in place which allow the broader membership to control the leaders, to elect them, and to recall them when necessary. That allows true democratic control over leaders and if that is not in place — and I believe that bourgeois democracy does not do that very well — then you have the rule of effectively unelected leaders, and that is the worse type of setup.
AK: No good anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, radically transformative organizing that I’ve seen disavows leadership. I think the question is absolutely how you make that leadership accountable in a radical way to those who constitute an organization, whatever that organization or community is. So to posit anarchism as this kind of desire to disavow structure or disavow any kind of leadership is wrong. Good examples of resistance movements show you that they are necessary. But it isn’t necessarily one step from acknowledging the fact that radical struggles for social justice need some sort of leadership that we must have a party, we must have a state. So the question is what do we do with need to organize ourselves?
CP: A further question is whether or not we are comfortable with the groups we form providing leadership outside of them. That is something even groups that are comfortable appointing some sort of coordinating or logistics committee are still really uncomfortable with. There comes a moment when one encounters people outside of our groups, and we may find ourselves in a position of leadership. And I don’t mean the position of telling them what to do but perhaps of trying to draw people towards a more radical position or trying to organize people in a moment of defense. One of my most vivid memories of Occupy was that when I was there with other people who were on the periphery of it and defending the encampment, the question of defense becomes really difficult without a question of leadership. The reality was that what would of made defense of the camp better would be if the people who were in that encampment told people like me to follow their leadership rather than holding to this firm idea that we are uncomfortable providing leadership to a mass of people who show up, many of whom were probably willing to get themselves arrested if someone said that that was the plan going forward.
EC: When we talk about leadership many different ideas can come in. There are people that we look to and trust, such as social leaders who influence other people’s opinions, and that is tied in with strength of character in some ways. That’s distinct from a person who has a particular job or responsibility, someone we have put in a leadership position for that task because they have a particular skill. That is also distinct from somebody who is in a position of authority. That is somebody who we take orders from, who we have ceded our own autonomy to. When they tell us to go get arrested we follow them because we have set them up as an authority, but we haven’t necessarily thought through our actions ourselves. I think it is really important to make distinctions between these concepts, because conflating them gets us confused. One of the things about anarchism as I understand it is that it really does try to break down these different concepts. Anarchism is anti-authoritarian, it’s anti-hierarchical. That’s not the same thing as being opposed to leadership in the sense of accountability. If you say somebody has taken on a task, they have a responsibility for doing that specific job. It goes against respect for other’s autonomy if that person then fails to do their job and is not responsible for it.
Q & A
I thought the lesson of Occupy on the idea of consensus was really interesting, but the problem I saw is that the central body took up all these questions that were often ridiculous minutiae. I think this fixation with process is the same problem that we see manifesting very differently in closed organizations that don’t operate on consensus — looking, for example, to the recent collapse of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. I wonder if this is less about consensus or democratic centralism than about fetishization of certain processes and the need for forced unity where perhaps no unity exists. How do we understand the problem of unity in places where unity is not actually there?
I like this distinction between leadership and authority, and I particularly appreciate what Alex what was saying about traditional, centralized, communist movements still maintaining certain oppressive forms within their organization, even if they were trying to articulate a resistance to them. How do we allow leadership for oppressed groups and classes without then giving them authority in areas which they don’t necessarily need to have it? How do we distribute power in a way in which leadership and authority do not become conflated?
AK: Both of these questions are related; they’re very interesting. On the point of the perpetuation of oppressions within supposedly revolutionary organizations, the autonomous Marxist John Holloway has writes about how love has come out as this sort of political ethic. Holloway loves to talk about dignity, and he talks about the failure of so many high-modernist revolutionary movements. He particularly blames an orthodox reading of Marxism embodied in some communist parties that treats people as a means to an end, doing violence to their dignity and autonomy. Maria Mies, a Marxist-feminist, has done a lot of great writing on the so-called “women’s issue” within many communist parties and how it was always going to be a question of, “Oh, once we have seized the state, once we are the ones in control, we will fix all these other issues.” And that applies to racism and settler-indigenous issues too. After a while it seems like the only issue that really matters is this supposed axis of class in a narrowly economistic way. The knee-jerk reaction to it has been to adopt this notion that we have to open up spaces for marginalized groups to take leadership, and that’s a very problematic way to think about. First of all, it recapitulates this liberal notion of tolerance, where tolerance implies that I have the right to not tolerate you! So it is still an exercise of power. I was involved in CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) for a long time and there was this question of representation — do we have quotas? Do we have a formal position on the executive for these disadvantaged groups? It wasn’t that they were entirely bad questions to ask, it was that the approach to it was always a technocratic one. In the Radical Imagination project here in Halifax, we have been doing a lot of thinking and working around this issue, not just of making space, but of making time for the effective practice of a really deep, anti-oppressive practice within the movement’s spaces. But there are no easy answers. We don’t want to go down the road where imagining movements is nothing more than a therapy group, because we are all damaged people, and particularly activists and organizers can be very damaged people. We’ve defected from a status quo that we find deplorable for all kinds of reasons and that has maybe damaged us in all kinds of profound ways, some less so than others given our relative privilege. So what do we do with those spaces? I don’t have the answer to that, but I wish I did. We have to begin there; we have to begin with that acknowledgement. I still hear, “But we are not effective, we are not seizing power,” and I agree. I believe that is a tremendous challenge. But at the same time it’s not enough to adopt a much more rigid discipline, more authoritarian forms of organizing that allow people to speak in a voice that seems unified when in fact that unity has come at the cost of dispossessing people of their dignity and their power to act, and has just created another violent order on top of the existing one.
CL: People tend to affiliate with those who share their political ideas. That’s how people group together naturally. Nobody wants an organization that recreates repressive structures when in reality that organization should be dedicated to working for the liberation of humanity. I’m not advocating for a model like the SWP. I don’t think that is a good model to follow. But what I am advocating for is to have an organization where ideas are debated and then, through a democratic process of voting on those proposals, a decision is made. Why? Because you can’t talk forever, even though it does seem possible when there is a non-urgent issue and everybody has time and it’s cool. But when something fundamentally shifts in society — when there is a struggle going on and the enemy is literally knocking at your door — people usually realize really quickly that they need to come to a decision. In those situations you need to come to a decision because you need to act, and I believe you need to act in unity. I voluntarily submit to decisions made by people I elect in an organization that I trust, and I will carry out those decisions because it will be better that we all act together on what was agreed rather than discussing and agreeing, and then those who disagree go off and do their own thing. What’s the point of discussing in the first place if we are all going to go off in different directions?
That’s the kind of internal decision making I am thinking of, but of course in reality we have different groups with somewhat different programs, beliefs, and functioning. So how can we work together? I believe it’s possible on clearly agreed and defined terms. I call it “united front work,” and you can call it “coalition work,” but those opportunities arise. I think we all agree that fascists need to be dealt with; I hope you all agree that we need to stop them from organizing and marching down the street. We don’t necessarily agree on what the Soviet Union represented, but we can agree on the need to stop the fascists, and that’s the kind of unity I advocate whenever I have the opportunity.
CP: With Occupy there were a bunch of people who got together who couldn’t imagine organizing in any way except by these general anarchistic principles. There was no conversation at Occupy Halifax about if this model of consensus-based decision making was the right one. It was just like people were drinking coffee and decided, “We’re going make decisions based on consensus, and everyone else is occupying in two weeks and so are we.” That’s essentially a part of the problem. We have internalized the idea that a version of anarchism is the only way forward. Too often it has become a default in the way that really the default for many people in the 1950s was a brutal, authoritarian, Stalinized way of organizing. So in some ways Occupy represents a problem.
The self-reinforcement that Eva talked about — that’s also how democratic centralism works too. The agreement is not enforced by anybody else but you. When I talk about discipline, I’m talking about self-discipline. I’m not talking about the idea that people should be flogged if they don’t follow the main agreement. There’s a self-enforcing agreement, and asking why we failed here and taking collective responsibility for why an organizing effort failed is something that I don’t think can only happen in consensus-based model.
I was reading an article about the vocabulary of the New Left versus the post–New Left of today, and the language has really shifted from “liberation” and “overthrowing the state” to “creating safer spaces.” Or instead of “the people,” to “intersectionality.” Given the events of Occupy and all that’s happened, few will argue that these horizontal pushes are actually rethinking our relations or creating alternative communities. I want to ask: How and when we do engage with the State? How do you challenge power or authority? Examples like the Zapatistas also raise that question. Right now the government of Mexico just thinks, “Alright, we don’t have to worry or provide services to the poorer estate there.” But when we get to the point where they’re so big in size and number that you have to engage, how does that happen?
All of you have some sort of orientation towards Marxism or some sort of affinity to it. What is Marxism to you? Because it seems one way it is coming out is tactical. What is Marxism in relation to the broader Left? How do you understand it?
AK: I identify with the theoretical trend known as Autonomous Marxism, a very rich analytical strand that emerges out of people’s concrete struggles and frustrations with some more doctrinaire forms of Marxism. For me, Marxism is the most robust and relentless way of rigorously understanding the science of exploitation that is capitalism. It is not primarily an organizing strategy for me. Anarchism is perhaps closer to actual organizing but lacks the ideological robustness of Marxism. And anarchist analysis, especially of capitalism, comes from Marxism — unless it is some horrible form of anarcho-capitalism, which most anarchists reject as a form of anarchism at all. The question of engagement, in some ways, is the crux of it all. Depending on the day that you catch me, this question will be relevant because maybe we’re all hurtling towards destruction, and the people that survive will reconstitute themselves outside of states that are no longer able to function as such. In some sense this is what I meant when we talked about revolution. We presume that the status quo is almost indefinite in terms of where our ideological touchstones come from — they come from the Industrial Revolution and this modernity borne out of the Enlightenment. They may reject liberalism but they’re in the same bed with liberalism. People seem to presume that we will face challenges, but nothing dramatic is going to happen in terms of the balance of forces internationally or the ability of states to continue to do what they do on the basis of an industrial, petroleum-based process. Whether that is true or not, our notions of revolutions are very much wrapped up in that. What the Zapatistas have done, though they wouldn’t say it this way, is to displace the state in areas where they exercise control. They have not descended into this fuzzy, middle-class notion of, “Let’s get together and make sure we all feel really good and live in a house that is quirky and alternative, and we won’t have any of the normal rules of society.” What they have done is take seriously the question of social transformation. They have elaborated institutions where they have leaders subject to recall, and they take positions when it is a matter of urgency; they take votes and decide to go to war, and the people who didn’t vote for it have to leave the community. What the Zapatistas have done is to elaborate institutions along an anarchist ethic of parallel power where they have displaced the state, and government supporters are now literally coming to Zapatistas and saying, “We have a land dispute. Something is going on. Can we use your systems of justice to adjudicate it?” That to me is revolutionary. The control of territory is revolutionary. The ability to displace dehumanizing exploitative and oppressive systems is revolutionary. Does that mean the Zapatistas have solved all those problems within their own structures? Not at all. Does it mean they have all the solutions for the rest of us? Of course not. The limit to learning from other revolutionary processes is that they belong to their own time and place. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to learn from them, but it’s an excellent question. Along the lines of what I think everyone here has said, there is a question of pragmatism. And I think that intentionality has to be part of it. Otherwise let’s just go around and throw paintballs at banks. But that’s just frustration. That’s not serious.
CL: You asked how do we engage with the state? I’m not sure that is the best way of phrasing the question because I find myself being engaged by the state whether I want to or not. I think that’s the reality — the state exists and will tell me and you what the student fees are and what offense will send you to prison, how long the sentence will be, and under what conditions you will serve your sentence. All of those things are ways the state engages with its dear citizens. So I engage the state as my opponent in current society, because the current function of the state is to oppress and to maintain the rule of capital. That brings me to the Marxist state. We cannot reform the oppressive nature of the current state. Some people advocate police reform, you know, make cops a little bit nicer. I think that’s bullshit. Marxists believe that the existing state cannot be taken over; we need to replace it with a new type of state based on workers’ rule and workers’ councils. It will still be a state, which will disappoint the anarchists, but it’s the best way to defend the interests of the majority of the people. The revolution needs to be defended once it is successful, and the best tool that the working class will have will be proletarian state. We will no longer be spectators but will be active participants in running society. |P