by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #23, February 4, 2000)
An anarcho-communist who has been forwarding many anarchist documents to people over the Internet also wrote directly to Communist Voice. As part of the ensuing friendly exchange of views, I sent him the Seattle CVO leaflets that are reprinted in this issue of CV. In response, he claimed that the Seattle leaflet "uphold the 'battle of Seattle'" misrepresented the anarchist position. Below is my reply. I also wanted to print excerpts from his letters, but he refused permission for this. However, following my reply are two relevant statements from the material he has been circulating: a 'black bloc' communique about the Seattle events from the ACME Collective, and a solidarity statement to the `black bloc' from anarchist-communists.
. Thank you for your reply to the leaflet of the CVO comrades in Seattle that summed up the "battle of Seattle", and for the various anarchist materials you have sent me. Although it has taken me a week to get time to reply, I think that this dialogue is useful. I have shown it to comrades here who have also appreciated it. If we have the space for it, we would like to publish extracts from this dialogue in the next issue of Communist Voice. [Jeff refused permission for the use of his letters.--JG] . . . Moreover, the summation of the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle has raised the question of anarchism to wide circles, and it would be intolerably secretive and elitist to keep useful materials away from them.
. Now on to the issues you raised with respect to the CVO leaflet on the events in Seattle. You concerned yourselves exclusively with the part of it that was directed towards anarchism. It condemned the hypocrisy of the bourgeois authorities, expressed solidarity with youth who wanted to rebel against the system, including those currently involved in anarchist circles, and it pointed to the necessity of active resistance. But at the same time, it criticized the dead-end nature of anarchist practice. It examined the ideology and actions especially of the anarchist circles involved in trashing for trashing's sake. There were many other anarchists at Seattle, but the trashers were not only were very prominent, but influenced a section of alienated youth whom our comrades wished to address. The anarchists who trashed for the sake of trashing would, I believe, be such circles as the Black Bloc and the ACME Collective. Among the materials you sent me (and many other people) was the ACME Collective's "N30 Black Bloc Communique", and a "Solidarity statement to the anti-WTO anarchist black bloc" by the "Initiative for a Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC)", a statement which fervently backs the ACME Collective and its Communique
. Indeed, judging the actions of the ACME communique and the Black Bloc at the Seattle is important for the summing up of the demonstration. You write me that "the misrepresentation of anarchism here [in the CVO leaflet] is pretty weird". Yet what the leaflet says about anarchism is fully in line with the practice of the ACME Collective in Seattle, and is verified further by the NEFAC solidarity statement. Let's take a look.
You write that it is absurd to present "anarchists abandoning class-based revolution". There is nothing about "class-based revolution" in the ACME communique; there is neither talk about revolution nor about the need for a class-based movement. At most, it expresses opposition to "Capital and State" and talks about the necessity of "an attack on private property". But this cannot be taken as a synonym for revolution, because the ACME Collective discusses what it means by attacking private property. It enthuses, not over revolution, but over the great importance of smashing windows. After a statement of its anarchist goals, and the need to create a non-hierarchical society, it says: "When we smash a window, we aim to destroy the thin veneer of legitimacy that surrounds private property rights." It doesn't say that this is to prepare a revolution. Instead it goes on to say that window smashing itself "exorcizes" capitalism. Its exact words: "At the same time, we exorcize that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us. By 'destroying' private property, we convert its limited exchange value into an expanded useful value. A storefront window becomes a vent to let some fresh air into the oppressive atmosphere of a retail outlet . . ." And it continues rhapsodizing in this vein. It's perspective is that "After N30, many people will never see a shop window or a hammer the same way again." And that's it.
. Where's the class-based revolution, Jeff? And was the NEFAC solidarity statement any better? It cites the ACME statement and says that "our comrades . . . took it upon themselves to strike capitalism where it hurts". Shop windows? That's where it hurts? That's revolution? Windows get broken in revolutions, but it makes a mockery of revolution to regard the breaking of shop windows as itself revolution and as the hitting of capitalism where it hurts. This is the type politics which the CVO leaflet characterizes as the dead-end "politics of 'inflicting material damage on the bourgeoisie'."
. I think that you yourself realize the emptiness of these statements. That's one of the reasons why you also sent out the "Leaflet distributed at N30 London, UK", signed by "Some unknown proletarians". This leaflet talks in the name of "proletarians", which the ACME Collective doesn't. But what is notable is that neither you nor the NEFAC try to help the ACME Collective overcome its standpoint.
. Mind you, it's not that the London anarchist leaflet itself has any perspective besides the utopian hope that autonomous action in and of itself will bring about a "world community". True, unlike the ACME Collective, it says that destroying capitalism "will require a sustained social movement of millions of people". And I can only sympathize with the appeal to "break the anti-strike laws", the view that state ownership does not in itself eliminate capitalist ownership, and the goal of eliminating capitalism, stands which appear repeatedly in CVO literature. But the London leaflet has little idea of what has to be done to achieve the necessary social movement of millions of people, of how it will be organized, or of what its goals will be. The alternative to private capitalism and state capitalism is given simply as "a world human community", which is supposed to be the opposite of "a single global economy". And all that is needed to obtain this world community without a corresponding world economy is to take "action without following the rules" and "organising and controlling our own struggles autonomously from all those who would seek to represent us". This is to magically eliminate capital, eliminate wage labor, etc.
. What happens when a movement with such vague ideas as that of the London leaflet manages to find itself in a position of influence? During the Spanish Civil War, the anarchists tried out their economic prescriptions in workplaces in Barcelona and some other areas of Spain for a time. And they met fiasco. Here I am not referring to the military crushing of the anarchists, but to the economic failures of the anarchist experiment while it ran its course. The Spanish anarchists could shout with the best of them against hierarchy, wage labor, capital, money, government, etc., and they could issue declarations that they had abolished money and government, but money and government continued in the anarchist-controlled areas. Worse yet, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT itself had to admit that the anarchist forms of economic organizations were not working, and were fostering a petty-bourgeois spirit. (See "Anarchist fiasco in the Spanish Civil War shows that autonomous collectives cannot overcome the marketplace" in the Oct. 1996 issue of CV--it is also posted on our web site, as I pointed out in an earlier letter.)
. You are upset that the CVO leaflet refers to the petty-bourgeois nature of anarchist ideas. You seek to refute this by referring to the fact that some anarchists have been proletarians. True enough, but this hardly proves that anarchism organizes them with a proletarian perspective.Indeed, from the point of view of the anarchist program, it is notable that anarchism stretches the very idea of "proletarian" to cover just about anyone except the big exploiters. For example, you have objected to the distinction Marxism makes between the class stand of the working class and that of the peasantry, and the copy of the ACME Communique you sent me ends with the slogan "Peasant Revolt!" (I am not sure whether this was added by you or was part of the ACME statement). And in your current letter you write that "the greatest weakness of (most forms of) marxism has historically been that it only understands class in the economic sense". This removing of the content from the concept of "class" fits in with the ACME Collective, which defines the "privileged" activists not on the basis of those who are economically privileged, but on the basis of those who disagree with it. If you disagree with the anarchists, the ACME Collective holds that you are guilty of "the racism of privileged activists", but if you agree with the anarchists, your privileges are forgiven you. Even one of the council communist documents you sent me ridicules the idea that one can "magically label" all the followers of this or that anarchist organization as "workers". But this type of labeling is the content of the idea that class isn't restricted to "the economic sense".
. Indeed, rather than analyzing what NEFAC and ACME said, you sent me statements of decades past by various anarcho-communists of the "councilist" persuasion. These will no doubt be useful in examining that trend, and I appreciate your sending them. They can serve as one of the subjects for future discussion between us. But right now we face the task of analyzing what happened in Seattle and what the Black Bloc did there. What they did can't be ignored on the grounds that other people in past decades did, or talked about, something else. If, for example, some "council communists" in 1960s spoke about class-based organizing or revolution, it doesn't prove that the Black Bloc or the ACME Collective or NEFAC is involved in "class-based revolution". We must look at the tasks of today in rebuilding an independent proletarian movement, and see whether the ACME Collective really dealt with this. Thus I will refrain at this time from dealing with the problems in the councilist literature you sent me, other than to point out some relations it has to present-day anarchism and to point out that it doesn't deal in the slightest with the fiasco of the economic strategy of anarchism.
. For example, you send me a document from 1966 that says that ". . . the only purpose of a revolutionary organization is the abolition of all existing classes in a way that does not bring about a new division of society . . ." This sounds a theme that I think you are fond of--that the very form of activity of activists today must already have the form of the new society within it. It is a common anarchist theme, and I think the Black Bloc probably would agree with this.Fine.Let's see what they made of this in practice. The ACME statement talks about trashing property and says that, by this method, "we exorcize that set of violent and destructive social relationships which has been imbued in almost everything around us." So I ask you, Jeff, does smashing glass windows necessarily achieve the exorcism of destructive social relationships "in a way that does not bring about" new destructive social relationship? Hasn't the smashing of windows occurred in just about all revolutions and counter-revolutions in history? Revolutionaries have smashed windows, but fascists too have smashed windows; high-minded people have smashed windows, but looters too have smashed windows; people seeking the abolition of capitalism have smashed windows, but so have people seeking only national liberation. Or, if you like, you could substitute "trashing private property" for "smashing windows" in the previous sentence.
. You write that the CVO leaflet "contains a contradiction . . . at one point it talks about the possibility of fighting the police (and one would think, trashing stuff) as a means of undermining capitalist authority, but then attacks anarchists for consciously doing just this to undermine capitalist authority". You raise an important point, indeed a key point, but you stumble in discussing it and you obscure the actual practice of the Black Bloc. There is no contradiction in the leaflet. The issue is that the ACME collective regards trashing stuff as an end in itself;indeed, contrary to what you and the NEFAC solidarity statement imply about the "militant resistance" waged by the Black Bloc, the ACME Collective didn't even believe in resisting the police in defense of the mass demonstration. It regarded the trashing itself as supposedly the "exorcism" of the "destructive social relations" of "Capital and State". The CVO leaflet vigorously defended those who resisted the police attacks and stressed the vital role of fostering a mass spirit of active resistance, but it did not hold that even such active resistance (disdained by the ACME Collective) creates the nucleus of the new society, or exorcizes capitalist social relations: active resistance is not a substitute for the organizational and political tasks of the movement, but a necessary means of defending the movement to accomplish these tasks.
. The CVO leaflet points out, concerning those anarchists who trashed for the sake of trashing, that "It never enters such people's heads that the shutting down of the WTO was a significant political victory . . ." Indeed, there is nothing in the ACME Communique that indicates any enthusiasm for the anti-WTO protest in itself--it is simply the trashing that is significant. Nor did the ACME Collective seek to defend the mass of demonstrators against the police. Instead, the ACME Collective boasted of how it avoided this struggle and let others bear the brunt of the police attacks. It wrote that "Unlike the vast majority of activists who were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets on several occasions, most of our section of the black bloc escaped serious injury by remaining constantly in motion and avoiding engagement with the police." The ACME communique actually makes a big point of sneering that those who would engage in active resistance must be "privileged" people, while allegedly the mass of ordinary people would never do such a thing.
. The CVO leaflet points to such things as the South Korean workers' and students' strikes and demonstrations. Can one imagine that such major struggles could have been built up with the ACME spirit of denouncing engagements with the police as the act of "privileged activists"? Can one imagine the contempt for the masses that is involved in sneering at the demonstrators for standing their ground in the face of the police? Thus, when the ACME Collective smashed windows, it was not promoting active resistance to police repression. It itself writes that "Of all the groups engaging in direct action, the black bloc was perhaps the least interested in engaging the authorities". On the contrary, it was promoting what, in its mind, is an alternative to active resistance.
. That's the difference, Jeff. The CVO leaflet praises active resistance, and isn't deterred from this by the fact that some glass gets smashed. The ACME Collective and the Black Bloc thought that the smashing of glass was hitting capitalism where it hurt. It is the flip side of the worshipful bourgeois attitude to private property to regard these two positions as the same, on the grounds that some glass gets broken either way. All the bourgeois law-and-order fanatics can see is that glass is broken (which they denounce), and all the anarchist trashers can see is that glass is broken (which they love). Marxist revolutionaries think that the world doesn't revolve around shards of glass, but around class organization and class struggle.
. You write that "At any rate: the accusation that anarchists don't patiently get down to long term political work is bullocks." The perspective put forward by the ACME Collective was: smash the glass now, and immediately exorcize the present social relationships. Where does long-term political work fit into this? Indeed, according to our comrades, the Black Bloc did not even leaflet the demonstrators.
. How does one deal with the movement when it is still under the influence of mistaken ideas? The ACME Communique puts forward no perspective on how to do this. The idea is simply to sharply denounce ordinary people who disagree with the anarchists, calling them "racist" and "privileged" people, and to inspire them to change by the sight of broken glass. The Black Bloc, as the ACME Communique points out, actually ended up in sharper contradiction with the mass of demonstrators than with the police.
. We in the CVO stem from the late Marxist-Leninist Party, and we have a good deal of experience with demonstrations where the mass of demonstrators have different ideas than we do, and where the reformist leaders of the demonstration desperately wanted to drive us out. We generally were able to hold up our banner in these demonstrations, distribute our leaflets and encourage militant stands by the most active section of the demonstrators, not just because we were resolute but because the mass of demonstrators accepted our right to be there and because we treasured every step, however small, that the demonstrators took beyond the confines being imposed on them by the reformist leaders. Even today, although the CVO is tiny and thus has much less activity in the mass movement, we have been able to work in various demonstrations led by hostile political forces. This is because, unlike the Black Bloc, we don't have contempt for the mass of demonstrators; we don't regard them as "privileged" brats; and we work hard to find ways to politically influence the masses. As a result, while only some demonstrators agree with our full views, the mass of demonstrators generally accept that MLP and CVO views and actions are a legitimate part of the mass struggle. As a result, we have repeatedly been able to appeal to the mass of demonstrators against the censorship intended by reformist leaders.
. Why have we been able to appeal to the mass of demonstrators, while the Black Bloc had more trouble with other demonstrators than with the police? It has a lot to do with the attitude towards long-term political work: our acceptance of it and the Black Bloc's negation of it.
. In my opinion, your rejection of unions also shows a rejection of the tasks of long-term work among the working masses. Instead of working hard to find a way to influence the workers in the unions, you substitute the denunciation of unions in general. You do this in the name of emancipating the workers from "parties, states, unions, etc.". Indeed, the leaflet from London you sent me, while having a more class-based rhetoric than the ACME Communique, goes further in "utopian anti-organizational" views in another way--it isn't even signed by a group, just "some unknown proletarians". Like you, it believes that the proper appeal is simply to organize "our struggles autonomously from all those who would seek to represent us". You may believe that this is a powerful justification of your position and repudiation of all hierarchy, but it is just an evasion of the long-term tasks of organizing a movement and it reflects the hope that a spontaneous rebellion would eliminate the need to worry about difficult organizational and theoretical questions. Moreover, it is based on the notoriously false idea that anarchist "autonomous" organizing really doesn't involve seeking to exercise influence over others. If an organization is "informal" or secret or "autonomous", it has supposedly eliminated the evils of hierarchy. This claim sometimes reaches such extremes that it is mocked by the council communists you support, who point out that it covers up high-handed forms of organizing, with leaders who are free from the supervision of the mass of followers and contemptuous of theory.In the councilist literature you sent me, one document states that
"Some present-day organizations cunningly pretend not to exist. [Hence the London leaflet is signed simply by "some unknown proletarians". Note also that the complaint about organizations that pretend not to exist verifies the polemic against Bakunin given by Pete Brown in the CV.--JG] This enables them to avoid bothering with the slightest clarification of the bases on which they assemble any assortment of people (while magically labeling them all 'workers'); to avoid giving their semimembers any account of the informal leadership that holds the controls; and to thoughtlessly denounce any theoretical expression and any other form of organization as automatically evil and harmful."
. You write to me that "utopian anti-organizationalist anarchists . . . are the vast minority of anarchists". That's debatable, because you attribute the most general features of anarchism to only a section of anarchists. However, it is true that the Black Bloc was only one section of the anarchists at Seattle. But the crucial point is that you are unable to separate yourselves from the mistakes of the Black Bloc. You may hint to me that they are the "utopian anti-organizationalist anarchists", not like the good anarcho-communists and council communists, but you support solidarity statements that cheer on the actions and conceptions of these "utopian anti-organizationalist" anarchists. You have failed to show that the anarchist movement can deal with even the grossest errors of any of its sections. Instead, you have inadvertently shown that anarchist rhetoric can be used to cover over the concrete actions taken by fellow anarchists, no matter how misguided they are.
. The Black Bloc created a bad situation between itself and the mass of demonstrators in Seattle.If you want to pooh-pooh this because the ACME Collective is only a minority of anarchists, then you had better see to it that the anarchist movement cleans house in its own ranks (i.e.rectifies its practice). The CVO leaflet opposed the ideas of the ACME Collective because it sympathized with the alienated youth and sought to help it find a path forward. If you wish to help the disaffected youth get organized, you will have to help criticize the ACME Collective in front of the youth. You will have to circulate not just solidarity statements, but militant criticism of the Black Bloc. So far, however, it seems that anarcho-communists like you and NEFAC are rallying around the Black Bloc. This seems to illustrate that the ACME Collective isn't an aberration of anarchism; its actions and communique were based on the fundamental ideas of anarchism.
. No doubt there is far more to discuss. I hope you do get the time to examine the issue of the historical experience of what happened to the autonomous anarchist collectives in Spain. This raises profound economic issues about the viability of anarchism, and I am quite interested to see how you analyze such issues. In the meantime I wish you, Jeff, a happy new year, and hope to hear from you again.
Last changed on October 16, 2001.