An Open Letter to the Movement
By Ben Grosscup and Doyle
Revolutionary means that we are in this to win. But certain ways of thinking within anarchism are preventing us from building a coherent and strategic revolutionary movement and thereby winning a social revolution.
Part of the problem is thinking in false dichotomies. This way of thinking mistakenly sees two things that are really mutually necessary, as mutually exclusive. When we look around us, we find a world built on false dichotomies.
Many of us were turned on to radical politics by taking up an issue of special importance to us. It may have taken a revolution in our own thinking to see the connections between our own struggle and that of others. One of the most enduring images from the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization is that of “Teamsters and Turtles.” The years of organizing and exchange between once disparate movements culminated on that beautiful November morning with many people transcending single issue thinking and moving toward a broader anti-corporate, and even anti-capitalist analysis. Many people are overcoming false dichotomies like ‘labor vs. environment.’ We win the most profound victories when we do this. It’s not just deforestation, and it’s not just sweatshops; its all that and more. People everywhere are looking at politics more holistically and joining together on the streets. Applying holistic thinking to our anarchist organizing is essential to overcoming false dichotomies, which are holding us back from creating a broad-based revolutionary movement.
PRACTICE VS. THEORY
Theory gets a bad rap these days. No wonder! Most places that “do theory” are insulated academic environments and corporate think tanks. Revolutionary theory is often associated with Marxist ideologues who promote party politics and state socialism. Even anarchist theory is often discussed in ways that are inaccessible, and full of jargon. This can seem intimidating and disconnected from the daily struggles of most people. In a society so deeply beholden to directives of capital, there is little space to talk critically about important theoretical topics such as political philosophy, revolutionary history, and theory of education. A combination of these factors leads many people to focus primarily on practice (what they do on a daily basis) while ignoring theory (reasoning what is the best way to go about these daily doings.)
Regrettably, the development of the black bloc in North America has reflected this trend. Instead of being a name for a set of tactics to resist police brutality at street demonstrations, “black bloc” has become an entity unto itself. It has taken on an entire subculture, persona, and a host of culturally specific no-no’s (like engaging in popular culture or eating a hamburger). By definition there are no official leaders of the black bloc. There is no official organization that makes black blocs show up at demonstrations. However, in the minds of many who see and participate in black blocs, anti-authoritarian beliefs and militant action have become inseparable. In many anarchist circles today, one is not accepted as sufficiently revolutionary without proper black attire, knowledge of jargon and, in particularly awful cases, whether the person is a young white male. These trends make anti-authoritarianism morph from a coherent set of ideas, accessible and applicable to people of all different backgrounds, to a small and even parochial sub-culture that, despite talk of “diversity of tactics,” embraces narrow and even predictable means of resistance (dressing in black, acting anonymously, organizing in affinity groups, engaging cops in street battles, etc.). Some activists see militant action as the most revolutionary tactic possible and therefore good. But there is no such thing as a revolutionary tactic. Revolution is a strategic process marked by decisive moments of confrontation with powerful elites and the development of counter structures that empower people to make decisions about their lives and meet community needs.
To know what is appropriate at what time in a revolutionary struggle, we need to think rationally about changing contexts so our movement can grow and evolve dynamically. We need well thought out ideas and means of implementing them everywhere.
SPONTANEITY VS. INSTITUTIONALIZATION
Many anarchists favorably equate spontaneity with autonomy, personal freedom and free association; some of the foundations of anarchism. Ultimately, we want to be free to make decisions about our lives without an imposing system of command and control from above. Other anarchists, however, associate institutionalization with “gray suits, bureaucracy, dogma, hierarchy.” Indeed, the institutions most people in this society experience most directly include school, work places, and religious institutions. For many, these experiences are deeply demoralizing because they totally contradict the desire for spontaneity. Some conclude that they don’t want any institutions.
An institution is a lasting organization of stable relationships with a specific purpose. The question is not, “Institution or not?” Rather, “What kind of institutions?” People often resist building institutions with theoretical foundations and long-term programs, favoring episodic, spontaneous, moments of glory on the front lines and in their personal lives. We want institutions with solid anti-authoritarian theoretical foundations committed to putting these ideas into practice, engendering spontaneity as part of a larger project of liberation. Creating good institutions does not mean compromising anti-authoritarian politics; it means committing to them. It means creating community-based revolutionary infrastructure that makes this movement relevant to our neighbors in between mass mobilizations. It means creating lasting systems of self-governance and community decision-making that mirror the free society we want to build.
The beginnings of this work have been extraordinary. The spokescouncil organizing model, for example, has been essential to giving this movement a directly democratic and decentralized structure. These moments show us that what we want – what this world needs – is attainable. We can do it! Most exciting is that these structures are beginning to empower many people. We should strive to make the movement so inclusive and general that huge numbers of people feel empowered and connected. These decision-making bodies should be strongly anti-authoritarian so that no individual, organization or political party can take them over for a particular interest. They must be stable enough so decisions are resolved by equally empowered people debating together.
Creating revolutionary infrastructure (affinity groups, community gardens, free schools, cultural centers, unions, counter community meetings, etc.) is not about making insular lifestyle hide-aways. Revolutionary infrastructure is the complex and diverse web of connections that is intricately connected to and a critical part of the larger political movement and revolutionary project.
SECURITY CULTURE VS. ORGANIZATIONAL TRANSPARENCY
We have to organize in ways that resist federal surveillance and try our darndest not to allow the State to throw us in jail for trying to build a free society. But the security culture we adopt often takes on a life of its own, turning into a barrier to democratic sharing of vital information.
In the name of “security concerns” at the Quebec 2001 2001 and actions against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the place of the spokes council was not announced until the last minute. One had to already be privy to the organizer’s communications network to find out where the meeting was. This prevented many out-of-town people, and probably local people, from finding the meeting where the action plan was discussed. The next day many people were not aware that if they did not want to be in a militant “red” zone, they should not be in the non-violent direct-action oriented “yellow” zone. It was an amazing, spontaneous, wonderful historic moment when the red zone emerged out of the yellow zone to tear down the fence. The only problem was some people were not prepared to be in the thick of the police violence that followed. There were people who didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into by being in the yellow zone.
If we want to embrace a “diversity of tactics,” there needs to be a way for people on all levels of the “traffic-light spectrum” to feel empowered in their participation. That’s part of what resisting is about – feeling like you are taking control of your life and making decisions with other people to reclaim collective power. When some activists deny important information, which may be critical to making informed decisions about how to best contribute to the movement or action, organizations can fall apart, leaving participants with a bitter, disempowering and anti-democratic feeling.
There is a fine line between security concerns and making sure everyone has the information they need to make informed decisions. Security culture tries to stay one step ahead of the authorities, but we’ve also got to be in-step with each other. If information is sensitive, the process of releasing it should still be transparent. This challenge requires creative and innovative strategy.
We are faced with a seemingly impossible task: transforming the fundamental institutional structure of society. Our vision for the future should inform how we organize in the present. Theory informs practice, vision informs strategy. As we organize, we should hold each other mutually responsible that our movement be rooted in direct democracy, inclusiveness and an ethical framework. In times of political repression, we must keep our eyes on the bigger picture and act in solidarity with one another in the struggle of the present. Now more than ever, we must demand the impossible – not only of our world, but also of ourselves.
Doyle is studying critical pedagogy and is a community activist in Vermont.
Ben is studying food politics at the Institute for Social Ecology.