by Howard J. Ehrlich
By the late 1960s, new left anti-war activists had become so successful that their organizational meetings would attract swarms of newcomers looking around for something meaningful to do. Regrettably, as one of the leading
Yippee activists correctly observed, we managed to turn off people as fast as we turned them on. As the American Anarchist movement grows, it runs the risk of repeating that history.
Oppositional movements are necessarily fragile. At the external level there is surveillance, infiltration, co-optation and outright repression. We pretty much expect this. But it is the internal level, the level of everyday
political practice, that determines our success rate. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the Anarchist recruit today was likely raised in a middle-class or middle-class oriented setting, socialized into the values of competition, individualism, anti-intellectualism and capitalism with little to no experience or training at working cooperatively, let alone collectively.
The result is that Anarchist organizational efforts are often parodies of Anarchist practice.
It was a recent incident at an organizing meeting that led me to this column. We were working on the program of speakers and workshops for an Anarchist book fair when a woman, around 20, spoke up. She had already disrupted the meeting by her and her companion’s late arrival, greetings and explanations, and by proceeding to open their carry-in food giving us a commentary on its quality. “I will do a workshop on anti-racism,” she volunteered.
Her offer was received with silence. Then, another woman (who was later to volunteer for two activities but show up for neither) asked in genuine curiosity, if not amazement, “What are you going to do, Tess?” (All of the names and some events described here have been disguised to protect the inept.) Tess replied with some indignation; after all, she reminded us, she was a member of Anti-Racist Action. “What’s your theory?” the interrogator continued.
“Whites suck!” Some people smiled, some giggled, and someone repeated, “Whites suck?”
“Yes,” Tess said vehemently and pointing at herself angrily as if nobody had noticed, “I’m white.”
There it was: a theory of racism validated by one’s race in a dazzling display of narcissism, anti-intellectualism, and political malpractice.
Roger C is the screen name of a computer geek whose paying job puts him on line all day. With his skill and access, his offer to establish and keep running a regional Anarchist listserve and Web site was accepted tacitly by what passed for a regional organization. If you monitor the messages, you find that Roger C not only initiates as much as three times more messages than anyone else, but he transformed himself into a gatekeeper of Anarchist purity. He will routinely flame people he disagrees with, promote pet enterprises, and pan writers, articles, and entire periodicals. Using the Internet, Roger C has transformed a liberatory technology into a mechanism of domination.
Paul was a guest for dinner at the O Street commune. As they were all going about with dinner preparations, Carol came in the kitchen and, using an electric can opener, opened a can of cat food. Paul became incensed. How dare we as an environmentally conscious activist collective waste resources by using an electric can opener. Paul’s quest for political purity could likely have been satisfied in a more brotherly fashion. Aside from the fact that Carol’s companion cat would only eat a particular brand of canned food, Carol, although in her early thirties, had severe arthritis in her hand which often made it difficult for her to use a manual can opener.
Elitism, a pervasive form of Anarchist malpractice takes many forms. A demonstration was planned following a national Anarchist gathering. It was agreed publically that we would march through a wealthy business district chanting appropriately anti-capitalist slogans, then disband and return to our meeting hall for supper. Given our target area, the police were out in full force. I think there was about one cop for every five Anarchists. It was a lovely spring day and most of us were enjoying the opportunity to get out of our meeting and take a walk. As we were marching along, a group of Anarchists, on signal, began trashing the store windows. Most of the marchers had not been informed that this was going to take place and were not prepared to avoid the police or to get arrested. The outcome was that many people were arrested. Most of them had just been marching and enjoying the sun. Further, the rest of the meeting was then disrupted by our concerns with comrades who had disappeared in police custody, with bail, and the usual variety of defense and mutual aid activities.
Sometimes the fear of being thought of as authoritarian or elitist causes people to hold back. In one community I observed, Tim, the central Anarchist organizer was a bright, knowledgeable, personable, articulate guy. What more could you ask? Well, you could ask that Tim knew how to organize. He didn’t. He had no sense of group process and seemed unaware of the dynamics going on about him. In his case, I have never seen a meeting run by him that fulfilled its potential. So, Tim’s resource, his personality, elevated him to an elitist position – one which would embarrass him to recognize. The problem is not just Tim. The problem is the failure of his community to comprehend and act on these group dynamics.
Another form of Anarchist malpractice is the delusion of being right. It takes many forms. For example, Bob has decided that what the community needs is a food co-op. Note that I did not say that the community had decided that.
So Bob finds a few people who agree and they set off to organize a co-op. When asked what the characteristics of the community are that might influence the acceptance or use of a coop, Bob and company have no idea. In fact, they have no idea about organizing, funding, running a meeting or the history of food co-ops in the neighborhood. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a beginner or an amateur; we all have to start somewhere. But Bob and company think they are going to succeed because they are right, and because they are right they can skip the needed steps.
In another neighborhood in another town, the Sunshine Collective has invaded a local community. They don’t quite see it that way, of course. With limited money, they sought out a location for a new infoshop. The cheapest place they could find was in a poor black community, a storefront abandoned by a couple who tried to run a small grocery. At first, the local kids and teenagers came to look in as a matter of curiosity, but later they came to rip off whatever they could. None of the Anarchists lived in the neighborhood. In fact, it was 15 to 20 minute drive (or two-bus trip) to get there from practically anywhere local Anarchists lived. The Sunshine Collective soon disbanded, although they attributed their problems to “personality differences.”
I will re-open this catalog of Anarchist malpractice in my next column, but I will end with this story. The local street sheet collective realizing that their language might be too rhetorical, made an extra effort to produce a sheet that everyone would read. Having so resolved, the lead article of their very next issue began: “The scum-sucking secretary of labor….”
Howard J. Ehrlich is a Baltimore-based sociologist and writer and a regular columnist for ONWARD. He edits the magazine, Social Anarchism. All of the stories here are true.