Refusing to be ruled over

February 27, 2009

No one should begrudge anyone the lifestyle they choose, but all too often, personal revolt becomes a substitute for social and collective struggle for a better world.

MY EXPERIENCE as a teenager, and I suspect that of many other socialists, was that as I became aware of the world's myriad injustices and began to grope toward answers, I found my way to anarchism first. Anarchism--hatred of all authority--flowed naturally from my reaction to the way I saw the world around me: racism and inequality, harassment by authority figures, the war in Vietnam and so on.

My friends and I made a special trip to the anarchist bookstore in town, and I still have the pamphlets I purchased there. A passage in the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta's pamphlet, Anarchy, particularly captured my attention in the way that it explained how capitalism reinforces its rule:

[T]he workman, forced for centuries to depend upon the goodwill of his employer for work, that is, for bread, and accustomed to see his own life at the disposal of those who possess the land and capital, has ended in believing that it is his master who gives him food, and asks ingenuously how it would be possible to live, if there were no master over him?

In the same way, a man whose limbs had been bound from birth, but who had nevertheless found out how to hobble about, might attribute to the very bands that bound him his ability to move, while, on the contrary, they would diminish and paralyze the muscular energy of his limbs.

A few things made me drift away from anarchism: my own experience, and meeting socialists who did not identify socialism with state tyranny, as the Stalinists had done. One of the socialist parties in Britain at the time that I was there was involved in organizing unemployment marches to demand jobs. My two other anarchist friends dismissed this effort as a waste of time; they dismissed the idea of fighting for "the right to work" on the grounds that to do so was to fight for the right to be exploited.

Their alternative to this was finding ways to drop out of the system by squatting--occupying run-down abandoned apartments and not paying rent. I failed to see how squatting could pose any real challenge to the system. And it seemed to me that if people were starving and unemployed, they certainly had the right to demand something better.

I was quickly convinced that lifestyle choices weren't going to accomplish much by way of challenging the system, and was convinced in discussions with another socialist student that we couldn't ever get rid of capitalism without first organizing and participating in mass protests to fight for immediate demands. I later learned that by no means did all anarchists abstain from struggle for purist reasons, but "lifestyle" anarchism is a strong strain in the movement, even among activists.

ANARCHISM MAKES the error of believing that the means to achieving a classless, stateless society must prefigure the end result. Thus, if we want to achieve a society based on free association, without coercion and without bureaucratic centralism, we must build forms of organization today that prefigure the future society. Hence, the emphasis among some anarchists on vegetarianism, collectives, "affinity groups" and consensus.

This lifestyle approach tends to focus on how we live our lives rather than on the best means of winning a struggle.

No one, of course, should begrudge anyone the lifestyle they choose, but all too often in these instances personal revolt becomes a substitute for social and collective struggle for a better world. One does not expect the plow to prefigure the wheat; nor should we expect our methods of organizing to fight for a better world to prefigure or look exactly like the world we plan to achieve.

The confusion comes in believing that a new society is established by the example we set by how we live today, whereas in reality a new society must be built by millions of people engaged in struggle before such a new world can be erected.

My experience with consensus was a negative one and further confirmed my decision to reject anarchism. An idea accepted by some anarchists is that democratic decision-making (majority rule) should be replaced by consensus decision-making, on the grounds that democracy constitutes the tyranny of the majority over the minority.

In my first year in college, I was involved in an effort led by the Clamshell Alliance to shut down the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in Massachusetts. Consensus at planning meetings was presented as a way to make every voice heard, and to prevent any imposition of decisions on a minority against its will.

In practice, it did not work well. First, using consensus in meetings of 50 or more people meant interminably long meetings. One or a small handful of people could simply block a decision from being made, so that the "tyranny of the majority" was replaced with the ability of a minority, simply by disagreeing, to block decisions, and therefore action. I attended meetings where the acrimony became so thick that people were ready to throw people out of windows.

As a result, meetings dragged on to the point where the majority or the minority were compelled, if the organization was to move forward, to cave in (in other words, change position even if it disagreed). The results were often a compromise that pleased no one. The length of the meetings meant that a lot of decisions were made by the smaller minority that had the time and inclination to stick around to the end.

It took only a few meetings for the alliance to decide to jettison consensus for 75 percent majority--still impracticable in the heat of an occupation attempt that the police were violently attempting to thwart, but nevertheless a step forward.

AND THAT was, in many instances, my experience with practical attempts to implement anarchist ideals: as soon as they began to touch real-life situations, the principles would begin to be abandoned, one by one, grudgingly or otherwise.

A startling example of that were the Friends of Durruti, who emerged during the Spanish Civil War. They were a group of revolutionary anarchists who had become critical of the main anarchist trade union group, the CNT, for refusing to take state power even though they had control in the streets of some of Spain's biggest cities after a workers' uprising in 1936 had successfully thwarted a fascist coup, leaving the bourgeois government still clinging to power.

In Catalonia, for example, the anarchists refused an opportunity to seize power on the grounds that, in the words of one Spanish anarchist, "we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us, and we did not want it when we could exercise it ourselves only at the expense of others."

The problem was that in practice this meant handing power back to the capitalist politicians that had previously held it. Leon Trotsky was right when he wrote against the anarchists, "To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it."

Left without any idea of how to proceed, many of the CNT's leaders ended by entering the very capitalist state they had fought against all their lives, collaborating with the Stalinists who were busy crushing the most militant anarchist workers, on the grounds of the need for a common front against fascism. "To beat Franco we need to crush the bourgeoisie and its Stalinist and Socialist Allies," the Friends wrote. "The capitalist state must be destroyed totally and there must be installed workers' power depending on rank-and-file workers' committees. Apolitical anarchism has failed."

These were lessons learned in the heat of battle. In practice, the Friends, in order to preserve what had drawn them to anarchism--a desire for a revolutionary transformation of society by the working class--were forced to jettison its most sacred principle against state power, no matter which class wielded it.

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