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Whither anarchism? – the current state of UK anarchism

“Revolution must be cultivated by means of systematic propaganda, step-by-step measures, careful planning, and rationally formulated programs that are flexible enough to meet changing social needs: in short, it must be cultivated by a responsible, dedicated, and accountable movement that is serious and organized along libertarian lines”. Murray Bookchin

Putting things in perspective
Anarchists in the UK today stand at a historical crossroads. Whether we identify as students, workers, unemployed, as members of a network/organization or not, we are called upon to answer this fundamental question: what is our political relevance to the larger world in the context of the struggle against austerity and beyond?

Other important questions lead on from here:-

  • Are we existing in a tacitly recognized political ghetto, where we see ‘our’ concerns as more or less unrelated to the more ‘mainstream’ struggles of the students and the workers (public as well as private sectors)?
  • If many of the anarchists identify themselves ‘as class struggle anarchists’, are we adequately engaging in that class struggle?
  • Perhaps the term ‘class struggle’ itself needs to be sufficiently defined in order for us to engage in it?
  • How do we relate to the rest of the anti-cuts movement, which falls within the ambit of ‘class struggle’? Is there a desire to do so?
  • Most crucially, as social anarchists, how do we act collectively and in a unified way, as an ‘anarchist movement’, not just in name but in deed?

Looking forward
The answers to the above questions – the desire to engage with these questions – will determine our future as to whether anarchism has an appeal beyond the visuals of menacing-looking black blocs and street battles with the police. Do we have answers to the thorny problems of everyday life? Can we practically and materially create the alternatives needed that the Left has no desire to do? Or, are our ideas mere rhetoric, and incapable of being implemented?

Organizing ourselves, and mobilizing people to this end, not just in the current social unrest but also in the long-term, is key to the continued political life and growth of anarchism. Otherwise, the title ‘anarchist’ would mean nothing at all, and we may have to consider ceding the way to new political subjectivities and new political subjects who are better able to adapt to the changed circumstances. The is true of the Left as much as it is true of anarchists.

Perhaps we can begin this self-critical, but also self-renewing process, by examining whether our current organizations and organizational frameworks have been adequate to meeting this challenge, or do we need to create entirely new spaces and structures that are efficient, inclusive, and non-sectarian. For there is no doubt that the need for such structures and procedures exists, and if we can begin to build them together it might just spell the difference between our political obscurity and a political rebirth.

Back to basics

 1. Who we are
After doing the rounds of the anarchist movement in London as an insider, as well as looking at anarchists from within the student movement as an outsider, a number of features of the existing anarchists stand out to me. The most salient and baffling aspect is the tacit and unquestioned assumption that the only criterion for being an ‘anarchist’ is calling oneself an ‘anarchist’, despite us knowing full well that there are many strands of anarchism. As a result of this, one’s politics is never questioned, never presented, and ultimately never tested. The assumption – and this is an insidious thing – that because we all call ourselves ‘anarchists’ we all share the same politics.

Some of these forms of anarchism such as individualism and anarcho-capitalism are as anathema to anarcho-communism or social anarchism or collectivism as Conservatism and capitalism are. Therefore, I’m astounded and disturbed to find many of the features of individualism and even nihilism among those who call themselves collectivists. The lack of awareness of this contradiction leads people to form attitudes such as hostility to and phobia of organizations, confusing unified and co-ordinated action with hierarchy, and dressing up the lack of accountability and culpability as choice and autonomy.

Such attitudes lead these anarchists to hold rigid and biased beliefs, bordering on superstition, like opposition to the very ideas of leadership (even when nothing is going well), movement, due process and formal relations. Informality, structurelessness, and ‘network’ are deified regardless  of the context and raised to the status of tenets. And there are those anarchists who, though they are part of a formal organization, hold many of the same  beliefs mentioned above. These latter are extremely comfortable being a part of their organization but have little or no involvement outside of it.

Yet none of these contradictions are recognized, let alone examined, even as they have long been hurdles in the development and growth of anarchism, at least here in London. It’s either a case of a new awareness that is lacking and needs to be introduced, or that there is no desire whatsoever to engage with this problem, or even worse, that people think that it’s not important and therefore, does not need to be discussed. This last is most probably the case.

So, there is a crisis of political identity that needs to be sorted out first and foremost. We need to understand what it means for us to ‘do politics’. All the rest follow from here.

2. What do we do
The next thing to resolve is our political role in London. If we want to create political influence among the general population, and make anarchist principles and practice real alternatives to statist Left politics, we should figure out not what we want to do, but what we need to do. We should be able to perform both the fun aspect of politics (if there is any such thing) as well as the tedious, laborious, and difficult part of politics (which is most of it) with equal dedication. Exploring how we put anarchist principles into practice could be fun even as it is tough and labour-intensive.

Once we have assessed that we have the requisite willingness and dedication to engage in politics, we can start to build groups, networks and organizations that define their areas of struggle (workplace, schools and universities, non-unionized workforce, immigrants, women, etc), but also work in tandem if need be (such as during Far Right challenges, or city-level or national mobilizations). The key is that we should stand prepared to act together in a unified fashion, regardless of what happens politically in the country. As social anarchists, we should take responsibility for our beliefs and acknowledge that we have a duty to respond to large-scale disturbances (such as the anti-cuts movement), even as we assist and provide solidarity to small-scale struggles (such as stopping the eviction of a squat).

Thus we can start drafting a long-term political strategy that gives us direction and purpose as a movement. This strategy does not have to be a centralized thing drafted by ‘the movement’. Various groups and networks can draft their own political agendas keeping in mind the various struggles we are engaged in. But these various strategies can feed into one another and feed out to each other in a porous, inflow-outflow mechanism. Perhaps this can be achieved by calling annual all-anarchist conferences or some other type of unified activity for our mutual understanding and benefit, so that we have a physical space to meet in and see each other (visual impression is crucial), and talk to and learn from each other face to face. This is how, at present, I envisage an anarchist ‘movement’ being created out of nothing. The infrastructure and political culture need to be created, maintained and constantly enriched if we are ever going to attract radicals in the making who are looking for a political expression.

For those who fail to see why we need to be a ‘movement’, we must remember that others (outside the anarchist circle) will see us, if they see us at all, as one political entity, as ‘anarchists’, in short as a ‘movement’. It’s only by being a movement that we can liaise with and build connections with other groups and political entities, or oppose ourselves to them. We cannot do so as atomized individuals, or as fractured or disparate groups with no real relationship with each other, practising our own fetishes in our precious corners. If we insist on acting this way, we unwittingly act out the alienation engendered by the present system, and more perniciously, reproduce those same alienated relations and behaviours we claim to oppose. The only position of strength is as a movement. A movement gives us a legitimate claim and a legitimate voice to speak with. Otherwise our existence is weak and fractured at best, or worse, an illusion that exists only in our minds for our reassurance.

When we have all this up and going, we can start to take risks with our actions, and start to be actual revolutionaries. As of now, no anarchist in London even comes close to being a revolutionary. Most of their attitudes are closer to a liberal or soft left ideology than a truly anarchist one. Moreover, without knowing or understanding anarchist history, what our relationship to our own past is – what people who swore by collectivist anarchist ideals thought and did since the nineteenth century – we have no means of knowing who we are now and what we are doing here. If anarchism has mutated in the UK it has mutated into a most undesirable form. If we have no past we have no present – and no future.

What we have now are mere remnants of a vision and an ideal that existed and was real to the anarchists of the past, but which we seem to believe only out of habit. Our attitude is one of fatalism proper – of waiting for something to happen, and if and when it happens cheering it on voyeuristically as the best thing ever, or looking down our noses at it as something ‘leftie’ or ‘liberal’ that we are too good to be part of. No popular struggle is ever seen as ‘ours’. We don’t see ourselves as a legitimate part of a popular struggle (as is happening with the anti-austerity movement), and that allows others to view us as outsiders, so when we do choose to take part we are seen as ‘injecting’ ourselves into them. Not only does this attitude make us at times look like political vultures, but it also effectively hands the baton to long-established and inefficient Left parties who then take over, reduce it to useless sloganeering and stamp it with their brand.

Political Vision
Politics is a struggle for power. It is a struggle by those who have less power to have more of it, and once they have it, to retain it. In our case, it is the struggle to neutralize ‘Power’, spelt with a capital P, and to enhance self-power. In the long run, anarchist political struggle is a struggle to create a society where no one power is dominant, where there is a balance of power. This is the invisible goliath we are tackling.

But politics is also about the ‘polis’, or civil society; it is the art of actively planning, creating and managing the structures, institutions, customs and practices of the society we live in. In this way politics involves two different but intricately and inseparably connected facets. The sooner we understand this the better for us. I say this because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a strong nihilist element in the ‘anarchism’ I’ve witnessed where politics is a ‘bad ‘word; politics is something the lying, corrupt, power-mongering elites, or the long-discredited ‘Left’ (seen as a monolith) engage in, replete with its association of boredom and bureaucracy.

Perhaps this attitude is the reason why we refuse to define ourselves ‘politically’ or to explain our ‘politics’. This way we effectively saw off the branch we’re sitting on, because we enter into battle with the powers-that-be without a plan, without a political strategy, since one needs to have a politics in order to have a political strategy, and having a political strategy means doing politics (in the sense understood above, which involves a plethora of tasks). It means figuring out one’s own position, one’s relation with other comrades, one’s relation to the political antagonist (e.g., state and capital), one’s relation to the rest of the world – regionally, nationally and internationally. It entails figuring out our collective political purposes and the goals to be achieved, and committing ourselves to achieving them – in deed, not just in word.

When we begin to think on these lines and begin to put the work in in earnest, we begin to engage in revolutionary politics. Anything short of it is a wishy-washy liberal attitude of “Oh, I’ll do whatever little I can to make the world a little less nasty” disguised in revolutionary posturing. Now, I don’t expect such revolutionary politics to emerge signed, sealed and delivered in a matter of days. Years of work needs to go into it. But the process has to begin sometime.

Every once in a while time presents us with an excellent opportunity to begin this process. The 1840s in Europe, 1917 Russia, 1930s in Spain and Germany, the mid-twentieth century in the colonies, the 1990s in the Americas etc. have all been terrible times, but also opened up trap-doors for people to break-through their usual paralysis, apathy and despair. And that’s what constitutes political vision: to be able to notice the calm before the storm and prepare for the challenges and opportunities provided by the flux. Political vision also involves recognizing that we may fail due to lack of resources, or lack of ability, or because we make mistakes, but failing because we never got started is worse. Political vision might come with experience but there is no excuse for a lack of willingness to act while claiming to be ‘revolutionaries’.

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