Neither Anarchistan nor Anarchyland: “What’s Left?” June 2015, MRR #385

In 35 years in leftist politics, I have met many ex-Stalinists and Maoists who became Trotskyists and council communists; I have never met anyone who went in the opposite direction. Once you have played grand master chess, you rarely go back to checkers.

Loren Goldner, “Didn’t See The Same Movie”

Hooligan Rule #3: The purer the anarchism in theory, the less effective in practice.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I tend to regularly take the piss out of anarchism when I write about it. I spent one column making fun of anarchist goofiness in being simultaneously uncritically inclusive and hypercritically sectarian. Then, after taking on and failing at the Sisyphean task of defining the locus of historical agency, I concluded by proclaiming anarchism a historical failure utterly lacking in agency. And just last column, I made snide comments about the anarcho/ultra milieu’s tendency to push purity over pragmatism with regard to current events in Greece and Kurdistan. Far as I’m concerned, most anarchists are still playing tiddlywinks.

It’s too easy to make fun of anarchism. And while I’m not about to stop, I do want to develop a useful metric for the effectiveness of anarchism. Hence, the above rule of thumb. Here, it’s worth requoting the relevant passages by Max Boot from his book Invisible Armies:

Anarchists did not defeat anyone. By the late 1930s their movements had been all but extinguished. In the more democratic states, better policing allowed terrorists to be arrested while more liberal labor laws made it possible for workers to peacefully redress their grievances through unions. In the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany, anarchists were repressed with brute force. The biggest challenge was posed by Nestor Makhno’s fifteen thousand anarchist guerrillas in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War, but they were finally “liquidated” by the Red Army in 1921. In Spain anarchists were targeted both by Franco’s Fascists and by their Marxists “comrades” during the 1936-39 civil war—as brilliantly and bitterly recounted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia. Everywhere anarchists were pushed into irrelevance by Moscow’s successful drive to establish communism as the dominant doctrine of the left. […] Based on their record as of 2012, Islamist groups were considerably more successful in seizing power than the anarchists but considerably less successful than the liberal nationalists of the nineteenth century or the communists of the twentieth century. (“Bomb Throwers: Propaganda by the Deed” and “God’s Killers: Down and Out?”)

To the utter defeat of anarchism in Ukraine (1918-21) and Spain (1936-39) must be added the failure of anarchism in the Mexican revolution (1910-20). Of these three major revolutions explicitly inspired by anarchism, or having substantial anarchist participation, none went beyond the stage of anarchist revolution into creating a long term anarchist society. All three were defeated militarily during the civil wars that followed the start of each revolution, with Ukraine’s Makhnovshchina liquidated by the Bolsheviks, Spanish anarchism undermined by Leninists, socialists and liberals before being eliminated by Franco’s fascists, and Mexico’s original Zapatistas crushed by the socialist/corporatist precursors to the PRI. That’s 0 for 3, out of the three most heavyweight revolutions of the twentieth century. But we’re not keeping sports scores here. We’re talking about history and tens of thousands of lives lost and societies dramatically altered. Again, it’s absurd to prevaricate by contending that anarchism is only a failure to date. That anarchism’s time is still to come. If anarchism cannot manage to establish itself despite having the solid majority of the working classes as well as a popular revolutionary upsurge behind it, it’s time to admit the most severe conclusion of my rule of thumb. Anarchism in its purest, most historically pertinent form has been a complete washout.

Which is too bad because the daily practice, organizational forms, and valiant struggles displayed in explicit anarchist revolutions have been truly inspiring. What’s more, most of the pivotal revolutionary moments in history have been, at the very least, implicitly anarchist and, together with their explicit siblings, constitute the category of social revolution. Such revolutionary uprisings are broad based, popular, spontaneous, organized from the bottom up, intent on overthrowing existing class and power relations, but invariably short-lived. Social revolutions have been myriad, some flash-in-the-pan and others persistent, but only an abbreviated list can be provided here. (The Paris Commune, 1871; Russia, 1905; Mexico, 1910-19; Russia, 1917-21; Ukraine, 1918-21; Germany, 1918-19, Bavaria, 1918-19; Northern Italy, 1918-21; Kronstadt, 1921; Shanghai, 1927; Spain, 1936-39; Germany, 1953; Hungary 1956; Shanghai, 1967; France, 1968; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1970-71; Portugal, 1974; Angola, 1974; Poland, 1980-81; Argentina, 2001-02; etc.) Let’s spend a bit more time further delineating types of revolutions.

The initial February 1917 revolution was nothing less than a spontaneous mass uprising of the majority of workers and peasants across the Russian empire which overthrew the Czarist ancien regime. Inspired by Western European liberalism, the February revolution was not of any single political persuasion. Popular self-activity and self-organization from the base up characterized Russian revolutionary society at that time. This was not just a matter of dual power—where the formal liberal Kerensky government paralleled an antagonistic, informal socialist government of the soviets—but one of a multi-valent revolutionary situation where power resided on numerous levels—like the factory committees—and eventually in various regions—like the Makhnovist controlled Ukraine and the SR-dominated Tambov region. When the Bolshevik organized Red Guard overthrew Kerensky’s government and disbanded the multi-party Constituent Assembly in what has been termed the October Revolution, Russia’s social revolution waned and the civil war began in earnest.

Many considered this vanguard political revolution a Bolshevik coup de etat. The Bolsheviks called it a socialist revolution. And make no mistake, socialist revolutions leading to Leninist states have been rather successful as revolutions go, far more successful than social revolutions. Explicitly anarchist social revolutions have never succeeded, as I keep repeating. Implicitly anarchist social revolutions have enjoyed a little more success as they are several degrees removed from libertarian purity. The German 1918-19 revolution and civil war brought about the liberal democratic Weimar Republic by default. France May-June 1968 changed an entire generation, especially in Europe, leading to political defeat but cultural victory. And the social unrest in Poland from 1980 through 1989 spearheaded by the Solidarity trade union movement arguably helped bring down the Warsaw Pact and paved the way for Western-style liberal democracy in Communist Poland, even as Solidarity itself was sidelined.

Now consider a couple of variations on my Hooligan rule.

What about a practice that tends toward the anarchistic, promulgated from a decidedly Marxist-Leninist theory? Last column I discussed the situation of Rojava in Syrian Kurdistan now, and of Chiapas in Mexico for the past twenty years. In the former, the stridently Leninist PKK/HPG-PYG/YPG have adopted anarchistic communalism and democratic confederalism around which to organize Kurdistan society in liberated territories. In the latter, the post-Maoist EZLN has translated Mayan democratic traditions into “mandar obedeciendo,” the notion of commanding by obeying, which conflates nicely with Mao’s own dictum to “go to the people, learn from the people.” The EZLN further praises Mayan communalism and mutual aid, yet it also fetishizes indigenismo while ignoring capitalist property and social relations and remaining a full-blown, hierarchically organized army. Despite such profound contradictions the EZLN was touted as anti-authoritarian and libertarian by anarchists and left communists the world over when they first emerged from the jungles of Chiapas in 1994. Rojava received a far more critical reception from the left of the Left when it emerged out of the Syrian civil war in 2014. That’s because of the PKK et al’s tortuous authoritarian history and orthodox Leninist party/military structure, which puts the accent on nationalism in national liberation struggles and in no way challenges capitalism, even as it pays lip service to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism and calls for the decentralized cantonization of any future Kurdistan. Further, the EZLN’s Chiapas is far more media savvy and social democratic, even liberal, as compared to the PKK’s Rojava. Rather than a variation on my rule then, this is the case of a strict Leninist core practice and rigorous hierarchical political/military command structures allowing for some libertarian wiggle room in the greater society in question.

But what about the idea that aboriginal hunter-gatherer societies, if not tacitly anarchist, were plainly anarchic? “According to this myth, prior to the advent of civilization no one ever had to work, people just plucked their food from the trees and popped it into their mouths and spent the rest of their time playing ring-around-the-rosie with the flower children. Men and women were equal, there was no disease, no competition, no racism, sexism or homophobia, people lived in harmony with the animals and all was love, sharing and cooperation.” So writes the so-called unibomber Ted Kaczynski in his essay “The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism.” Kaczynski then cogently demolishes this myth point by point using anarcho-primitivist and classical anthropological sources. Primitive societies were not examples of anarchism so much as they were of anarchy. The radical decentralization and technological simplicity of aboriginal societies allowed the evils of hierarchy, warfare, competition—if and when they arose—to be contained by scaling them down until they did minimal damage. A primitive tribe might very well be peaceful, communal, and egalitarian, but if not, the fact that a warlike, competitive, hierarchical aboriginal tribe was relatively small and confined to a compact territory meant that any harm done by them would be severely limited. The anarchy of paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies was not conscious anarchism by any stretch of the imagination. As such, something as simple as the proliferation of agriculture which ushered in the neolithic age rapidly subverted paleolithic anarchy by allowing agricultural surpluses to accumulate, upon which state structures and class societies were then eventually organized.

Now, a note on left communism. Left communism can be viewed as political accretion based on a progressive sloughing off from the Leninist Left. First there was the contentious political relationship between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, followed by the disaffection of Trotsky and Bukharin on the left in the Bolshevik party. Various Left fractions in the Bolshevik party attempted reform from within, most significantly Sapronov’s Democratic Centralists, Kollontai’s Workers Opposition, and Miasnikov’s Workers Group. Finally, leftist tendencies congealed against the Bolsheviks in the Third International, on the one hand the council communism of the Dutch and German Left as represented by Pannekoek, Ruhle, and Gorter and on the other hand Bordiga’s ultra-party communism on the Italian Left. Social revolutions are sine qua non for left communists, which laud them in principle while often being highly critical of specific instances. The need to shorten, if not entirely eliminate the transition to true communism, is the objective of much of left communism.

Between the first and second World Wars, mass movements of workers and peasants were dominated primarily by Marxism and Leninism, and secondarily by various types of anarchism. Left communism ran a distant third, without much of a mass base to speak of. Yet anarchists and left communists frequently found themselves allied against social democrats and Leninists, and for unfettered social revolution. The POUM’s alliance on the barricades with the CNT/FAI during the 1937 Barcelona May Days during the Spanish civil war, as well as the anarchist/left communist blend exemplified by the Friends of Durruti, clearly made them political bedfellows. This affiliation continued with the roller coaster fall-and-rise of anarchist and left communist political fortunes from 1945 on, and today I talk about the anarcho/ultra anti-authoritarian milieu as an overarching category. Of course, there are differences. We’ll leave a discussion of that for a future column.

As for Hooligan Rules #1 and #2? Those too require more space than I have at the moment. Did you hear the one about the anarchist, the Marxist, and the rabbi who walk into a bar? The bartender says: “What is this, a joke?”

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Rojava and Syriza: “What’s Left?” April 2015, MRR #383

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The disadvantage of having “been there, done that” in politics for almost fifty years now is that nothing ever really surprises me anymore. I’ve gone from left anarchism to anti-state communism, with stops along the way in the Industrial Workers of the World and Anti-Racist Action. After organizing scores of ad hoc anti-authoritarian groups and producing hundreds of flyers, posters, zines, publications and like propaganda over that span of time, I’ve gotten a bit jaded. The last thing that truly surprised me in a good way was the shutdown of the WTO in Seattle in 1999. Since then, I’ve been only mildly surprised with some aspects of the Arab Spring, the European anti-austerity protests, popular autonomous movements in Mexico, and the Occupy Movement. So, let’s consider a couple of things that are kind of cool and interesting in politics these days.

First, let’s be clear that I no longer claim any type of politics to the left of the Left. I still have sympathies and solidarities, but no overt affiliations. Which means I tend to be less concerned with purity and much more pragmatically inclined. Which, in turn, means I’m not into the game of “more anarchist/communist than thou” as I analyze existing politics and evaluate current events. So, let’s consider two subjects that seem to have anti-authoritarian knickers in a twist.

Begin with the plight of the Kurdish people. The Kurds have asserted a common ethnic identity through shared language and culture for over nine hundred years, ever since the high Middle Ages of the 11th or 12th centuries. Modern Kurdish nationalism arose after 1880, and if anything gives anti-authoritarians the screaming heebie-jeebies, it’s nationalism. Patriotism, the nation-state, national liberation struggles; nationalism in all its variations and permutations is anathema certainly for anarchists and also for most left communists.

The Kurds struggled for national self-determination for a greater Kurdistan against the Ottoman empire until British/French imperialism divided up the Middle East after the first World War. Most of the Kurdish population found itself in southern and eastern Turkey, with sizable minorities residing in northeastern Syria, northern Iraq, and northwestern Iran. This arbitrary division of the region into artificial nation-states fractured the Kurdish national movement into separate nationalist struggles; the PKK in Turkey, the KDP and then the PUK in Iraq, and the KDP-I and PJAK in Iran. All of these Kurdish political entities claimed to be, to varying degrees, political parties/guerrilla armies fighting for national liberation against their respective non-Kurdish regimes.

Sectarianism, nationalism, and imperialism have continued to keep Kurdish struggles fragmented, among the most intransigent being the Kurdish PKK’s incessant “peoples war” against the Turkish state. Even Kurdish successes have been piecemeal as a consequence. This is illustrated by decades of conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq’s Ba’athist regime in aborted revolution, back-and-forth war, and state instigated genocide, finally mitigated only by the happenstance of American imperialism. When the US military enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kurdish peshmerga consolidated autonomous power in the three northernmost Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Arbil, and Sulaimanya) and surrounding territories, even as various Kurdish political factions fought a civil war for control of what would be called by 1998 the Kurdish Federation. This territory has been governed as a state-within-a-state by the Kurdistan Regional Government after the US/Iraq war of 2003, a pro-Western, pro-Turkish sovereign Kurdish state in all but name and UN recognition with pretensions to being the first puzzle piece fit into a greater Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the most staid, orthodox expression of Kurdish nationalism imaginable, however. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK now in a Turkish prison for terrorism, recently rescinded the organization’s staunch Marxism-Leninism and replaced it with a libertarian communalism that has strong anarchist overtones. Traditional Leninist democratic centralism has been replaced with the democratic confederalism of Kurdistan, which:
[I]s not a state system, but a democratic system of the people without a state. With the women and youth at the forefront, it is a system in which all sectors of society will develop their own democratic organisations. It is a politics exercised by free and equal confederal citizens by electing their own free regional representatives. It is based on the principle of its own strength and expertise. It derives its power from the people and in all areas including its economy it will seek self-sufficiency. [“Declaration of Democratic Confederalism” by Abdullah Öcalan]
Ostensibly influenced by libertarian socialism, Öcalan and the PKK have given a particular shout-out to Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism for their ideological turnaround.

The Kurds have now seized the opportunity offered by Syria’s disintegration into civil war, and the threat posed by the resurgent Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State, to fight for an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria known as Rojava. The PYD party, which fields the YPG/J guerrilla army, has close ties to the PKK and governs Rojava with the pro-Iraqi KNC through a Kurdish Supreme Committee. The PKK’s communalism and democratic confederalism pervades Rojava. The territory is organized into cantons (Afrin, Jazira, and Kobani), governed by councils and communes, all defended by armed militias. The peshmerga have even joined the YPG/J in defending Kobani against the IS. So, here is the conundrum for anti-authoritarians. Is Rojava a genuine libertarian revolution of the Kurdish people, or is it window dressing for the post-Leninist Öcalan and his crypto-authoritarian, unapologetically nationalist PKK?

When the EZLN broke onto the international political stage in 1994, the Zapatistas were mum about their origins in Mexico’s 1968 student Marxist/Leninist/Maoist politics, as well as coy about their own political ideology. Nevertheless, anarchists and left communists embraced the EZLN wholeheartedly, without reservation, and events in Chiapas were defended as both revolutionary and anti-authoritarian. Not so Rojava. The anarcho/ultra milieu is being asked either to show unconditional solidarity for the revolution in Rojava or to summarily denounce Rojava as a Trojan horse for autocratic Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, no nuance is permitted.

Let’s now switch to another of the anti-authoritarian Left’s abominations—party politics. Political parties are universally vilified by anarchists, and less consistently condemned by left communists, whether liberal democratic, Marxist, fascist, what-have-you, and whether in the context of parliamentary democracies or one-party totalitarian states. No surprise then that the anarcho/ultra milieu views with intense suspicion the rise of Syriza in Greek politics.

The 2008 international economic collapse forced the European Union to the brink of default, and the Greek economy into bankruptcy. The Greek government economic crisis distilled down the general European economic crisis into a painful Greek depression in which Greek debt soared, GDP growth went negative, and a third of the population became unemployed. Numerous factors were blamed for this—unrestrained government spending, unsecured lending by rapacious creditors, corruption and tax evasion in society, etc. But the consequence was economic default, downgrading Greece’s credit rating, and two Economic Adjustment Programs (EAPs) of debt restructuring, severe austerity, and public sector privatization forced on Greece by the Troika of Eurozone, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. More to the point, social misery and unrest followed, with demonstrations, labor unrest, strikes, and riots becoming a daily occurrence.

The Greek government, comprised of the socialist PASOK and conservative New Democracy parties, accepted the bailout constraints, disciplined their respective memberships, and implemented the austerity, restructuring and privatization measures of the EAPs. Meanwhile, social suffering and rebellion escalated. One result was the resurgence of a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, fascist right in the Golden Dawn party, but another more important upshot was the formation of Syriza as an anti-austerity, EU-critical, opposition political party. Syriza itself is a unitary party forged from a diverse coalition of much smaller constituent parties claiming liberalism, social democracy, revolutionary socialism, communism, ultraleftism, eco-socialism, environmentalism, green politics, and feminism. The dominant, democratic socialist, euro-communist, feminist Synaspismós party is in Syriza side-by-side with the Trotskyist DEA, the Maoist KOE, the ultraleft ROZA, the green AKOA, and a dozen more fractious political parties.

Talk about herding cats!

The thought of Trotskyists and Maoists working together is mind-boggling in itself, and speaks simultaneously to the incredible fragility and astounding audacity of Syriza as a unified party project. Syriza got 36% of the popular vote in the 2015 Greek elections, enough to form a government in parliamentary alliance with one other, very minor Greek party. That this was with the right-wing, national-conservative, Euroskeptic party called Independent Greeks (with 4.7% of the vote) instead of the old-school KKE Communist party (5.4% of the vote) was also quite interesting, allowing Syriza flexibility on its left flank. Syriza’s stated goal is to force the Troika to renegotiate the EAPs in order to end economic austerity and privatization for Greece.

Far from hoping that Syriza is “workers’ power” in waiting, as some on the ultraleft have speculated, the general anti-authoritarian Left is adamant that nothing good can come from Syriza’s recent electoral victory. Crimethinc delivers the stock anti-party line, repeating tired old tropes from the anarcho/ultra milieu. Capitalism is in perpetual crisis and needs to be abolished. The social revolution required to abolish capitalism cannot be initiated and carried out, let alone won through political parties, electoral politics, or parliamentarianism. Syriza will succeed only in disciplining Greek social movements and social unrest to the exigencies of a capitalism in crisis, even in preparing the way for outright fascism: Many anarchists hope Syriza will put the brakes on state repression of social movements, enabling them to develop more freely. Didn’t Syriza essentially support the riots of 2008? But back then, they were a small party looking for allies; now they are the ruling elite. In order to retain the reins of the state, they must show that they are prepared to enforce the rule of law. Though they may not prosecute minor protest activity as aggressively as a right-wing government would, they will still have to divide protesters into legitimate and illegitimate—a move out of the counterinsurgency handbook that guides governments and occupying armies the whole world over. This would not be new for Greece; the same thing happened under the social democrats of PASOK in the early 1980s. Even if Syriza’s government does not seek to maintain the previous level of repression, their function will be to divide movements, incorporating the docile and marginalizing the rest. This might prove to be a more effective repressive strategy than brute force. [“Syriza Can’t Save Greece: Why There’s No Electoral Exit From The Crisis” by Crimethinc.]

That I was mildly surprised by Syriza’s electoral showing doesn’t mean I hold illusions that Syriza will usher in social revolution, or even a “workers’ power,” for Greece. There is the very real danger that Syriza might act to effectively bridle Greek social movements and social unrest. That Syriza cannot resolve capitalism’s crisis in Greece goes without saying. But still, I want to see Syriza poke its thumb into the eye of the Troika causing Greece’s misery, if it can. I want to see Syriza cause as much trouble as possible before it is inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated. That too, goes without saying.

That’s also how I feel about Rojava. I am mildly surprised by the successes of the armed Kurdish uprising in Rojava. But Öcalan is not Durruti reincarnated, nor is Kurdistan, even the Rojava part of Kurdistan, some anarchist utopia in the making. The limitations and shortcomings of national liberation politics, even those that proclaim socialist struggles for national liberation, are historically self-evident. Any movement for a greater Kurdistan, no matter how communalist, is also up against a capitalism in crisis. But still, I want to see Rojava take things as far as the Kurds there can with respect to liberatory social organization and self-defense. I want to see the Kurds of Rojava, and of all Kurdistan, kick up as much of a ruckus as possible before they are inevitably coopted, defeated, crushed, or liquidated.

If Rojava or Syriza actually, fundamentally, completely wins? Well, that would be truly surprising. Finally, that goes without saying.

ACRONYMS: WTO – World Trade Organization; PKK – Kurdistan Workers Party; KDP – Kurdistan Democratic Party; PUK – Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; KDP-I – Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan; PJAK – Party of a Free Life in Kurdistan; PYD – Democratic Union Party; KNC – Kurdish National Council; YPG/J – People’s Defense Units; EZLN – Zapatista Army of National Liberation; SYRIZA – Coalition of the Radical Left; PASOK – Panhellenic Socialist Movement; DEA – International Workers’ Left; KOE – Communist Organization of Greece; ROZA – Radical Left Group; AKOA – Renewing Communist Ecological Left; KKE – Communist Party of Greece

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