The Need for A Revolutionary Anarchist Federation
By Ernesto Aguilar
Since the 1980s, the anarchist movement has experienced a steady increase in numbers and activism. Much of this has been spontaneous and inspiring. With that growth, we have seen strides in virtually all strains of anarchism, but the one that has perhaps had the greatest impact on modern anarchism in the last 30 years — the revolutionary anarchist tendency — has grown stagnant. It’s time to resurrect this vibrant wing of anarchist organizing, and that time is now.
In truth, the revolutionary anarchist tendency has never really gone away, but among its most pronounced appearances in the last 30 years can be traced to Black revolutionary and author of “Anarchism and the Black Revolution” Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin as well as the Love & Rage organization. Kom’boa’s writings are essential in understanding where a revolutionary anarchist formation must go. In 1989, Love & Rage (L&R) surfaced as an informal network around the Love & Rage anarchist newspaper and evolved into a dynamic network. By 1993, it had evolved into a contentious revolutionary anarchist federation.
For all its faults, L&R represented a leap for North American anarchist politics. Whereas anarchists participated sometimes facelessly in the revolutionary movement, L&R was an attempt to present anarchism as a distinct pole within in the revolutionary struggle, with its own vision and politics. Some sectors of the anarchist movement criticized this move, along with various missteps and inability to answer criticism of vanguardism and poor organizational practice, as “authoritarian” and sought another method of organizing. The Network of Anarchist Collectives (NAC), a free association-oriented network, was formed in the mid/late-’90s, in part, as an alternative to L&R. The federation’s final undoing, however, was a host of political differences within the organization that prompted its dissolution on May 23, 1998. Likewise, NAC vanished as a functioning body by most accounts as well.
L&R’s breakup is said to have followed a two-year-long debate within the organization around key questions — among which was apparently a conflict of those who felt most social questions could be solved within an anarchist framework and those who felt anarchism didn’t offer all the answers. Inevitably, the latter was accused of attempting to co-opt anarchism with Marxism, while the former was pegged as moralistic and vague. Disagreements over numerous other positions deepened the rift. L&R split up into several factions. The Fire By Night Organizing Committee is perhaps the best known of those splinters, and with its death in Summer 2000 (through the dissolution of its New York branch and the mass exodus of its San Francisco branch to the Freedom Road Socialist Organization), now is the time to learn from L&R’s errors and move forward.
What factors led not only to L&R’s failure, but also to some of its organizers to abandon revolutionary anarchism and adopt authoritarian ideologies? Perhaps L&R’s failure was only a matter of time, given tendencies that were not tackled, as well as a clearer understanding of strategic and political unity. L&R had been dogged for years by accusations of shady politics, in part fueled by the involvement of ex-members of the Trotsky-leaning Revolutionary Socialist League and willingness to exert its will even at the risk of alienating potential supporters. At its 1993 conference where L&R emerged as a federation, many accused federation advocates of forcing the move from its then-network-based structure at a moment when opponents of the move hadn’t expected it; one article later referred to that event as “conference of the long knives.” A failure to decisively put vanguardist accusations to rest and the tensions arising from it reportedly hung over the group until its final days and are arguably at the core of its demise.
Despite L&R’s failures, the benefits to a national organization are obvious. Seeing the success of our networking, sharing resources, information and ideas, and the growth of such national organizing puts some context to vague anarchist ideas and takes us from being simply “those anarchists” to being a pole in the struggle. Local campaigns can be linked to national campaigns for broader effect and to educate people about our common ground. National days of action, campaigns on behalf of political prisoners, speaking tours, flyer collectives, revolutionary cultural tours popularizing struggles — the potential is limitless. Building an organization is one way we can pull revolutionary forces in a movement together from isolation to a united group.
Indeed, a united group is what we need, and I make no halfway statements here. We need to move beyond abstractions about organization and start dealing with the realities we profess to understand. It’s as if we speak out of ignorance. We don’t want structure, stated goals, or to explain our ideals, yet wonder why people think anarchists are incoherent or why we’re isolated and with few allies. When people talk about organizing, we conjure imagery of constitutions, regulations and authority to criticize those propositions, yet we’re at a loss when movements in which we stand on the margins develop out of organizing and see victories. We talk about the irrelevancy of ‘theory’ and how we’re all about ‘direct action,’ but do lots of talking while others are doing the acting, often after reaching unity with others through ‘theory.’ We say we don’t need a ‘program’ to develop trust with comrades, but are confused when we don’t find agreement with those same comrades because we arrogantly assume they think like us. We talk about revolution, but try to turn the fight against white supremacy into a piece of a laundry list for ‘the revolution’ to deal with. We talk about freedom, when our presumptuous ideas about that freedom condemn us to intellectual chains.
Some are opposed to the idea of a federation, arguing it is fundamentally authoritarian. Oftentimes, such activists end up creating ‘alternatives’ to the ‘authoritarians’ and end up doing nothing or simply perpetuate the frustrations and isolation that anarchists end up caught in. Is organization anti-anarchist? In 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World was at the center of organizing when weavers, angered over reduction of their $8.76/week wages, stopped their looms and walked out of the mill. As mill after mill went on strike, a committee of fifty was set up, representing every nationality among the workers, to make decisions. The IWW organized mass meetings and parades, as well as soup kitchens. They accomplished this by organizing themselves. During the Spanish Revolution, workers and peasants seized and collectivized factories and land, instituting their own workers’ committees and peasant assemblies. Spanish revolutionaries created their own institutions, formed armed workers’ squads to patrol the streets, and established a revolutionary force, which went on to battle the fascist Franco’s squads. Men and women of these forces elected military commanders, yet rank conferred no real distinction. They historically put the idea of organization to good practice. Why can’t anarchists grasp the need for organization today?
Some segments of the anarchist community advocate reliance on a network structure that looks to autonomous collectives for all direction. One of the network-collective model’s failures is its dependence on regional collectives to reinvent the wheel so to speak in terms of creating principles for democratic organizing and structure, when some new organizers, with no disrespect intended, have no clear concept or assistance in this area. Furthermore, networks are often at a disadvantage in having no means by which to carry out decisions it makes, in part because they lack internal structure and accountability to see the ideas carried out.
Still more troubling is the popular belief in a separate organizing model that dictates collectives should have no contact, work in relative isolation and only be in touch when necessary. This is better known as a strategy of “leaderless resistance,” popularized by former Klansman Louis Beam, and is aimed at keeping supporters autonomous to engage in their own “lone wolf” actions that ideally protect them from arrest, repression and litigation. Obviously, this model has proven a failure in all three respects. Whether we like it or not, repression, jail and death are realities any revolutionary must consider. No, this isn’t a cry for martyrs, but it’s a wake-up call to those who pretend isolation is a defense and small-group action is a substitute for organization. The system relies on our fear, and commits atrocities to give those fears some basis. But is it fear that should motivate us, or should we instead be inspired by the desire to plant our ideals so that a million trees may grow? The choice is ours.
Clearly, an organization isn’t the only way for ideas to come to fruition, but developing our own internal structure is probably much more positive and successful than the paper unity some network formations can become. Federations set clear expectations of its members and establish bodies (committees, working groups) to get work done, and develop democratic structures to help our decisions actually get carried out. Does this mean a massive bureaucracy? Not at all, and the idea that being organized requires an immense bureaucracy alone is something that needs to be confronted. Love & Rage, for example, developed Working Groups to focus on various issues and struggles. Given campaigns could allow us to Ad Hoc Committees where interested collectives could work together to make a presence in a given issue. All it means is that we need to agree together to some issues, be willing to share these goals and the labor involved, and decide our unity is important to our collective empowerment.
Our movement needs a revolutionary anarchist formation, but where does this start? At root, any formation needs a basis for political, theoretical and strategic unity, a basis for structure and accountability of how we organize, and ideas for action.
For years, achieving unity has been difficult. One method some organizations have utilized is development of a basic 5-12 Point Principles of Unity, framing core beliefs, goals and/or strategies but not committing every cell to a given “platform.” Setting out clear Principles of Unity gives local groups a basis for our collective work, but doesn’t tie every cadre down to politics that don’t apply to its local character, culture or experiences. What needs to be emphasized are ways in which an organization can bring elements together and present revolutionary anarchist principles, but remain mass-based, with a focus on maintaining unity. A new continental federation could bring together groups to build an organization around this basic political/strategic unity.
Principles of Unity can be difficult to define. Committing to the fight against white supremacy on all fronts is essential, as is adopting some of the ideas Kom’boa has articulated in his writings, such as direct-action community organizing and support of autonomous Black organizing. Cadre like the Russian exile Dielo Trouda (Workers’ Cause) group, the Friends of Durruti and the dissolved South African Workers Solidarity Federation also offer points from which we can learn. And initiatives like the new Boston-based Northeastern Federation of Anarchist Communists offer a promising glimpse of how we should structure, as well as build unity. However, what needs to be emphasized are ways in which an anarchist federation can bring elements together and present revolutionary anarchist principles, but are flexible enough to work together. Of course, any organization can continue to evolve out of Principles of Unity. As our network grows and learns, our ideas, goals and strategies should evolve through a democratic process. Again, such doesn’t require a massive bureaucracy. It does require our enthusiasm and commitment to our goals.
How is an organization like this structured? Because of similarities (organization composed of collectives) it’s important to differentiate it from a network. Members make up an organization, and groups of members can form local branches to be an organized cell within a given community. Each local is tailored to its culture, needs and objectives, but commitment to the growth of the organization as a whole is a necessity. The organization is only as strong as its membership and branches, and such a building process is never easy. Members and collectives must decide our basis of unity and association through a democratic process. We need to decide who should participate in this process so all voices are heard and so people who do not intend to participate do not bog us down. Is this exclusionary? No. We need to move beyond pretending involvement or membership in anything organized is authoritarian. If we’re going to organize, sometimes we need to make decisions. They might not always be in vogue, but they’ll be hashed out through a process beyond the way the wind blows.
What voids can a network like this fill? Where to begin! A national campaign against Kom’boa’s frame-up by the racist “justice” system in Chattanooga, Tennessee, needs to happen now. A Love & Rage-style newspaper or mass publication presenting anarchist news and theory is a great idea. Likewise, building principled unity with communities of color, revolutionary prisoners and labor; developing anarchist organizing and networking with existing groups to be a strong voice in struggles; helping new collectives to grow and helping them flourish and support regional groups; cultivating independent media, from supporting existing outlets to creating our own — from the aforementioned paper to putting anarchist readings and ideas to cassette, CD and MP3; applying our principles; serving as a forum for sharing street action experiences in an age when repression is getting fiercer, and tactics for dealing with it; and the list goes on.
We are at a critical time in history, a time when we’re seeing strides and losses, but which presents the kinds of opportunities to take anarchism to a level it needs to go. What are you doing to see that it happens? And can we NOT look to make those strides? It’s time to build.