We’re counting the minutes. At some point today, a truck will arrive with newly minted copies of our Malatesta anthology: The Method of Freedom. We’re all big fans of Malatesta’s thought and writing, his tactical insights, his no-nonsense approach, and his uncommon ability to remain generous and comradely even as he debates opponents into smithereens. We like him so much that this anthology will be followed, year by painstaking year, by our ten-volume The Complete Works of Malatesta.
For now, we offer an excerpt as evidence of Malatesta’s continued relevance. It’s his take on the relationship between riots and revolutions (turns out he’s a fan of both), with a few additional paragraphs addressing the question of police infiltration, the nineteenth-century version of snitchjaketing, and how a vital movement should deal with both.
|Click here for the excerpt.|
|Click here to learn more
about the book.
Members of the Against Equality collective have an impressive list of events lined up this spring throughout the U.S. and Canada, to celebrate the release of Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion. If you’re lucky, you can catch an event near you. And if you’re not so lucky this time around, you can always get in touch with them and invite them to speak on their next tour!
SPRING 2014 EVENTS:
Apr 12 @ 10:50am: Radical Archives Conference, Cantor Film Center Theater, New York University (NYC)
Apr 16 @ 4:30pm: Kagin Ballroom, Macalester College (Saint Paul, MN)
Apr 19 @ 7pm: Bureau of General Services – Queer Division (NYC)
Apr 22 @ 4:30pm: Axinn 229, Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT)
Apr 23 @ 6:30pm: Concordia Coop Bookstore (Montreal, QC)
Apr 24 @ 8pm: Queer Possibilities Lecture Series, Alteregos Cafe (Halifax, NS)
Apr 26 @ 7pm: Calamus Books (Boston, MA)
May 2 @ Time TBA: Bates College (Lewiston, ME)
May 4 @ 6pm: Artists at Work Space, Maine College of Art (Portland, ME)
May 5 @ 4pm: UC San Diego (San Diego, CA)
May 6 @ 4pm: MultiCultural Center Lounge, UC Santa Barbara (Santa Barbara, CA)
May 10 @ 7:30pm: Stories Books & Cafe (Los Angeles, CA)
Keep an eye on the Against Equality website for the most up-to-date tour news and event information.
The interview below was conducted and published by the group Anarchist Affinity, in Melbourne, Australia. You can read the original (and check out their site) here.
Michael Schmidt is an investigative journalist, an anarchist theorist and a radical historian based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He has been an active participant in the international anarchist milieu, including the Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Front. His major works include ‘Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (2013, AK Press) and, with Lucien van der Walt, ‘Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism’ (2009, AK Press).
In your recent book, Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (AK Press, USA, 2013), you argue that anarchists have often failed to draw insights from anarchist movements outside of Western Europe. What lessons does the global history of anarchism have to offer those engaged in struggle today?
The historical record shows that anarchism’s primary mass-organisational strategy, syndicalism, is a remarkably coherent and universalist set of theories and practices, despite the movement’s grappling with a diverse set of circumstances. From the establishment of the first non-white unions in South Africa and the first unions in China, through to the resistance to fascism in Europe and Latin America – the establishment of practical anarchist control of cities and regions, sometimes ephemeral, sometimes longer lived in countries as diverse as Macedonia (1903), Mexico (1911, 1915), Italy (1914, 1920), Portugal (1918), Brazil (1918), Argentina (1919, 1922), arguably Nicaragua (1927-1932), Ukraine (1917-1921), Manchuria (1929-1931), Paraguay (1931), and Spain (1873/4, 1909, 1917, 1932/3, and 1936-1939).
The results of the historically-revealed universalism are vitally important to any holistic understanding of anarchism/syndicalism:
Firstly, that the movement arose in the trade unions of the First International, simultaneously in Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, and Egypt from 1868-1872 (in other words, it arose internationally, on four continents, and was explicitly not the imposition of a European ideology);
Secondly, there is no such thing within the movement as “Third World,” “Global Southern” or “Non-Western” anarchism, that is in any core sense distinct from that in the “Global North”. Rather that they are all of a feather; the movement was infinitely more dominant in most of Latin America than in most of Europe. The movement today is often more similar in strength to the historical movements in Vietnam, Lebanon, India, Mozambique, Nigeria, Costa Rica, and Panama – so to look to these movements as the “centre” of the ideology produces gross distortions.
The lessons for anarchists and syndicalist from “the Rest” for “the West” can actually be summed up by saying that the movement always was and remains coherent because of its engagements with the abuse of power at all levels.
How is anarchism still relevant in the world today? What do anarchist ideas about strategy and tactics have to offer people active in social movements today?
I’d say there are several ways in which anarchism is relevant today:
1) It provides the most comprehensive intersectoral critique of not just capital and the state; but all forms of domination and exploitation relating to class, gender, race, colour, ethnicity, creed, ability, sexuality and so forth, implacably confronting grand public enemies such as war-mongering imperialism and intimate ones such as patriarchy. It is not the only ideology to do this, but is certainly the main consistently freethinking socialist approach to such matters.
2) With 15 decades of militant action behind it, it provides a toolkit of tried-and proven tactics for resistance in the direst of circumstances, and, has often risen above those circumstances to decentralise power to the people. These tactics include oppressed class self-management, direct democracy, equality, mutual aid, and a range of methods based in the conception that the means we use to resist determine the nature of our outcomes. The global anti-capitalist movement of today is heavily indebted to anarchist ethics and tactics for its internal democracy, flexibility, and its humanity.
3) Strategically, we see these tactics as rooted in direct democracy, equality, and horizontal confederalism (today called the “network of networks”), in particular in the submission of specific (self-constituted) anarchist organisations to the oversight of their communities, which then engage in collective decision-making that is consultative and responsible to those communities. It was the local District Committees, Cultural Centres, Consumer Co-operatives, Modern Schools, and Prisoner-support Groups during the Spanish Revolution that linked the great CNT union confederation and its Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) allies to the communities they worked within: the militia that fought on the frontlines against fascism, and the unions that produced all social wealth would have been rudderless and anchorless without this crucial social layer to give them grounding and direction. In order to have a social revolution of human scale, we submit our actions to the real live humans of the society that we work within: this is our vision of “socialism”.
In sum, anarchism’s “leaderless resistance” is about the ideas and practices that offer communities tools for achieving their freedom, and not about dominating that resistance. Anarchists ideally are fighting for a free world, not an anarchist world, one in which even conservatives will be freed of their statist, capitalist and social bondage to discover new ways of living in community with the rest of us.
This is primarily a tactical question, because the approaches adopted by anarchists have to be suited to the objective conditions of the oppressed classes in the area in which they are active, and the specific local cultures, histories, even prejudices of those they work alongside. The proper meaning of “anarchist” as a democratic practice – a practical, not utopian, one at that – of the oppressed classes clearly needs to be rehabilitated in Australia and New Zealand. Just as the Bulgarian syndicalists who built unions in the rural areas relied upon ancient peasant traditions of mutual aid to locate syndicalist mutual aid within an approachable framework, so you too must find a good match for anarchism within your cultures. We, for example, have relied heavily on traditional township forms of resistance to explain solidarity, mutual aid, egalitarianism, and self-management. Yet, it is also a strategic question because in my opinion, where you have the bourgeois-democratic freedoms to organise openly and without severe repression, it is important to form an explicitly anarchist organisation in order to act as:
a) a pole around which libertarian socialists, broadly speaking, can orbit and to which they can gravitate organisationally – though it is important to recognise that there can be more than one such pole; and
b) as a lodestar of clear, directly-democratic practice, offering those who seek guidance a vibrant toolkit of time-tested practices with which to defend the autonomy of the oppressed classes from those who would exploit/oppress them.
It is the question of responsibility that compels us to nail our colours to the mast. This is for three reasons:
a) firstly, because we are not terrorists or criminals and we have nothing to be ashamed about that requires hiding, even from our enemies (we should be able to openly defend our democratic credentials before mainstream politicians);
b) secondly, that by forming a formal organisation, people we interact with are made aware that none of us are loose cannons but are subject to the mandates of our organisation (with those mandates being public, fair and explicit); and
c) lastly, but most importantly, that the communities we work within, whether territorial (townships, cities, etc), or communities of interest (unions, queer rights bodies, residents’ associations etc) know that we are responsible to them, that our actions, positions and strategies are consultative, collaborative, responsive and responsible to those they may most immediately affect.
We’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Counter Power Volume 2, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of Revolutionary Anarchism, is there any news on when it will be released? What ground will you be covering that people might not expect?
Global Fire is really a monstrous work: in research and writing for close to 15 years now, it’s really an international organised labour history over 150 years, tracing the organisational and ideological lineages of anarchism/syndicalism in all parts of the world. We have a lot to get right: we need to have a theory, at least, for why the French syndicalist movement turned reformist during World War I, or why the German revolutionary movement as a whole, both Marxist and anarchist, collapsed over 1919-1923, paving the way for the Nazis. These are issues of intense argument among historians, and we have to be able to back up with sound argument our stance in every case, from the well-known, like the Palmer Raids against the IWW in the USA in the wake of World War I, to the fate of syndicalism in Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, or of the near-seizure of power in Chile by the syndicalists in 1956, and their fate under the red regimes in Cuba, Bulgaria and China, or the white regimes in Chile, South Korea, or Argentina. We need to understand the vectors of the anarchist idea in a holistic, transnational sense, but have often been hampered by the narrowness of national(ist) perspectives. Even within the Anarchist movement, histories have been more anecdotal and partisan than truly balanced and rigorous assessments, and have often been very disarticulated by language differences. With lengthy delays incurred by us trying to make sure that Global Fire is the best (in fact only) holistic international account of the movement. You can be assured that Lucien is working on refining the text, which if published in its current format would weigh in at a whopping 1,000 pages, and that we have a pencilled-in release date for 2015, though perhaps 2016 is more realisable.
original url: http://www.anarchistaffinity.org/2014/03/global-fire-south-african-author-michael-schmidt-on-the-global-impact-of-revolutionary-anarchism/
The Winter We Danced is a brand-new collection of writing on the Idle No More movement. We at AK Press Distro have been anxiously awaiting getting this new book from our friends at Arbeiter Ring Publishing, ever since we first heard about it. And we weren’t the only ones—we’ve been fielding lots of calls and emails from other folks eager to read the words of the folks involved in this inspiring moment of Indigenous organizing. The waiting is over: the book is here in our hands, and can be in yours too! The publishers were gracious enough to give us permission to post the editors’ introduction to the book here, to give you all a better sense of the book so that you, too, can be excited about it. So here it is, we think it speaks for itself.
Indigenous peoples have been protecting homelands; maintaining and revitalizing languages, traditions, and cultures; and attempting to engage Canadians in a fair and just manner for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, these efforts often go unnoticed—even ignored—until flash-point events, culminations, or times of crisis occur. The winter of 2012-2013 was witness to one of these moments. It will be remembered—alongside the maelstrom of treaty-making, political waves like the Red Power Movement and the 1969-1970 mobilization against the White Paper, and resistance movements at Oka, Gustefson’s Lake, Ipperwash, Burnt Church, Goose Bay, Kanostaton, and so on—as one of the most important moments in our collective history. “Idle No More,” as it came to be known, was a watershed time, an emergence out of past efforts that reverberated into the future. The clear lesson regarding this brief note of context is that most Indigenous peoples have never been idle in their efforts to protect what is meaningful to our communities—nor will we ever be.
This most recent link in this very long chain of resistance was forged in late November 2012, when four women in Saskatchewan held a meeting called to educate Indigenous (and Canadian) communities on the impacts of the Canadian federal government’s proposed Bill C-45. The 457 pages of multiple pieces of legislation, an “omnibus” of new laws, introduced drastic changes to the Indian Act, the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and the Navigable Water Act (amongst many others). Entitled Idle No More, this “teach-in” organized by Sylvia McAdam, Jess Gordon, Nina Wilson and Sheelah Mclean raised concerns regarding the removal of specific protections for the environment (in particular water and fish habitats), the improper “leasing” of First Nations territories, as well as the lack of consultation with the people most affected even where treaty and Aboriginal rights were threatened. With the help of social media and grassroots Indigenous activists, this meeting inspired a continent-wide movement with hundreds of thousands of people from Indigenous communities and urban centres participating in sharing sessions, protests, blockades and round dances in public spaces and on the land, in our homelands, and in sacred spaces.
From the perspective of our collective and based on the curated articles in this book, the Idle No More movement coalesced around three broad motivations or objectives:
- The repeal of significant sections of the Canadian federal government’s omnibus legislation (Bills C-38 and C-45) and specifically parts relating to the exploitation of the environment, water, and First Nations territories.
- The stabilization of emergency situations in First Nations communities, such as Attawapiskat, accompanied by an honest, collaborative approach to addressing issues relating to Indigenous communities and self-sustainability, land, education, housing, healthcare, among others.
- A commitment to a mutually beneficial nation-to-nation relationship between Canada, First Nations (status and non-status), Inuit, and Metis communities based on the spirit and intent of treaties and a recognition of inherent and shared rights and responsibilities as equal and unique partners. A large part of this includes an end to the unilateral legislative and policy process Canadian governments have favoured to amend the Indian Act.
Admittedly, the movement goes beyond even these issues. The creativity and passion of Idle No More necessarily revealed long-standing abusive patterns of successive Canadian governments in their treatment of Indigenous peoples. It brought to light years of dishonesty, racism and outright theft. Moreover, it engaged the oft-slumbering Canadian public as never before. Within four months, Idle No More moved beyond the turtle’s continental back and became a global movement with manifold demands.
Idle No More is, in the most rudimentary terms, a culmination of the historical and contemporary legacies emerging from colonization and violence throughout North America and the world. These involve land theft, treaty violations, and many misunderstandings. There is therefore much to talk about, reflect upon, and take action to redress. In this way, Idle No More represents a unique opportunity: a chance to deepen everyone’s understanding of the circumstances and choices that have led to this time and place; and a forum for how we can come up with solutions together. This movement represents an important moment for conversations about how to live together meaningfully and peacefully, as nations and as neighbours.
That being said, the nature and enormity of Idle No More meant that it was sometimes bewildering in scope and complexity. As it grew, the movement became broad-based, diverse, and included many voices. There were those focused on the omnibus legislation, others who mobilized to protect land and support the resurgence of Indigenous nations, some who demanded justice for the hundreds of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and still others who worked hard to educate and strengthen relationships with non-Indigenous allies. Many did all of this at once. Idle No More adopted a radically decentralized character, having no single individual or group “leader.” Instead, communities would join together for distinct purposes, temporarily or for long-term activism. Events were local, regional, and wide-scale. This often confused and frustrated those (particularly in the media) who looked for the “voice” of the movement or somebody who could—or would—speak on behalf of all participants. Idle No More, however, was inherently different. It defied orthodox politics.
Indigenous women have always been leaders in our communities and many took a similar role in the movement. As they had done for centuries when nurturing and protecting families, communities, and nations, women were on the front lines organizing events, standing up and speaking out. Grandmothers, mothers, aunties, sisters, and daughters sustained us, carried us, and taught through word, song, and story. When Indigenous women were targeted with sexual violence during the movement, many of us organized to support those women and to make our spaces safer. Many also strived to make the movement an inclusive space for all genders and sexual orientations and to recognize the leadership roles and responsibilities of our fellow queer and two-spirited citizens. The movement also didn’t escape the heteropatriarchy that comes with several centuries of colonialism. We have more work to do collectively to build movements that are inclusive, respectful, and safe for all genders and sexual orientations.
At almost every event, we collectively embodied our diverse and ancient traditions in the round dance by taking the movement to the streets, malls, and highways across Turtle Island. The powerful events and emotions of the round dance are captured beautifully in SkyBlue Mary Morin’s poem “A Healing Time”—which is why we started off the book in this way. It is also worth remembering how the dance started. Cree Elder John Cuthand explains the origin and significance of the dance:
The story goes there was a woman who loved her mother very much. The daughter never married and refused to leave her mother’s side. Many years later the mother now very old passed away. The daughter’s grief was unending. One day as she was walking alone on the prairie her thoughts filled with pain. As she walked she saw a figure standing alone upon a hill. She came closer and saw that it was her mother. As she ran toward her she could see her mother’s feet did not touch the ground. Her mother spoke and told her she could not touch her. “I cannot find peace in the other world so long as you grieve,” she said, “I bring something from the other world to help the people grieve in a good way.” She taught her the ceremony and the songs that went with it. “Tell the people that when this circle is made we the ancestors will be dancing with you and we will be as one. The daughter returned and taught the people the round dance ceremony.” 
In the winter of 2012-2013, our Ancestors danced with us. They were there in intersections, in shopping malls, and in front of Parliament buildings. They marched with us in protests, stood with us at blockades, and spoke through us in teach-ins. Joining us were our relatives, long-tenured and newly arrived Canadians, and sometimes, when we were lucky, the elements of creation that inspired action in the first place.
Speaking of inspiration, the impact of Chief Theresa Spence’s fast on the movement—which many in this book speak about—cannot be understated. We also danced to honour and protect the fasting Ogichidaakwe, who went without food for six weeks on Victoria Island in Omàmìwinini (Algonquin) territory, Ottawa, to draw attention to unfulfilled treaties and the consequences on her community. While originally unrelated to any legislation or to those four Saskatchewan women, her simultaneous protest galvanized the movement. Her commitment provided an urgency that motivated our communities and our leaders to confront the legacy of this colonial relationship. Her sacrifice encouraged so many others to act.
A unique aspect of Idle No More is that the movement often went around mainstream media, emerging in online and independent publications as articles, essays, and interviews. This was the first time we had the capacity and technological tools to represent ourselves and our perspectives on the movement and broadcast those voices throughout Canada and the world—we wrote about the movement while it was taking place. Through social media—but also through good old word of mouth and discussions in lodges and kitchen tables
—these words spread quickly and dynamically, trending through venues like Twitter and Facebook. Never before have Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers and artists presented to Canadians such rich art, stories, and expressive forms to others in such personal, intimate, and dynamic ways that provoke and evoke visions of the past, present, and future. During the winter we danced, the vast amount of critical and creative expressions that took place is like the footprints we left in the snow, sand, and earth: incalculable. And, for the most part, it was full of a positive, creative, and joyful energy that continues to spark critical dialogues.
The Winter We Danced is a collection of much of this important work and a hopeful contribution to the new trajectories of Idle No More and the new movements to come. This book reflects what the movement represents in our history and asks critical questions about the state of Indigenous activism today. More importantly, it also gifts us a look into our future. Like a round dance, readers are invited to reflect upon this beautiful and significant moment, to remember, celebrate, think, and contribute to change we all can benefit from. The Winter We Danced hopes to serve as a space for everyone to join in, and maybe even inspire some more movement.
The Winter We Danced brings together the writings of both actors and activists within Idle No More but also Indigenous and non-Indigenous thinkers, organizers, leaders, artists and advocates—all of whom in various ways are embedded in community and their homelands. We begin with “First Beats”—a group of writing that captures the origins of the movement. “Singers and Dancers” builds upon these beginnings with a series of critical perspectives on core issues and events throughout the movement. “Image Warriors” features some of the most influential and powerful visual art emerging during the movement. “Friendships” reflects our relationships with supporters and allies across lines and borders, while “Next Steps” considers where we might collectively go from here. The resulting volume is an ambitious primer on the history of Idle No More and its implications, but also provides a platform for responses to the movement’s very existence. This collection has been curated by a group of Anishinaabeg and Neyihaw editors who were part of the movement at various stages and, in some cases, helped shape it. We reached out to colleagues and friends in the north, the west and the east to bring their issues and voices into the book. There are, however, some unfortunate absences in the book as a result of time constraints.
Finally, it should be stated that The Winter We Danced is not a complete body of work documenting the movement nor a comprehensive analysis of Idle No More. We have included as many voices as possible from the many who acted and danced and sang and lived in an incredibly diverse movement. At the same time, we have tried to provide a detailed overview of major events over a very complex time. Intended to be read by diverse audiences, this collection is ensconced with distinct politics and perspectives that do not always represent the ideas of all members of the collective. The text will serve as an invitation for those within Indigenous nations, Canada, and elsewhere to learn about Idle No More, reflect on this moment in history, and consider possibilities for the future of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships. The spirit and the work of the winter we danced continues, like it always has, into the future.
You can learn more about the book HERE.
Javier Sethness-Castro, author of Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe, conducted a lengthy and pretty fascinating interview with Noam Chomsky on the ongoing environmental crisis, its capitalist causes, and what anarchism might contribute to a solution. We’ve included an excerpt below. You can read the whole interview on truth-out.org, or watch it in glorious living color here.
JC-S: You have described humanity as being imperiled by the destructive trends on hand in capitalist society – or what you have termed “really existing capitalist democracies” (RECD). Particularly of late, you have emphasized the brutally anti-ecological trends being implemented by the dominant powers of settler-colonial societies, as reflected in the tar sands of Canada, Australia’s massive exploitation and export of coal resources, and, of course, the immense energy profligacy of this country. You certainly have a point, and I share your concerns, as I detail in Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, a book that frames the climate crisis as the outgrowth of capitalism and the domination of nature generally understood. Please explain how you see RECD as profoundly at odds with ecological balance.
Noam Chomsky: RECD – not accidentally, pronounced “wrecked” – is really existing capitalist democracy, really a kind of state capitalism, with a powerful state component in the economy, but with some reliance on market forces. The market forces that exist are shaped and distorted in the interests of the powerful – by state power, which is heavily under the control of concentrations of private power – so there’s close interaction. Well, if you take a look at markets, they are a recipe for suicide. Period. In market systems, you don’t take account of what economists call externalities. So say you sell me a car. In a market system, we’re supposed to look after our own interests, so I make the best deal I can for me; you make the best deal you can for you. We do not take into account the effect on him. That’s not part of a market transaction. Well, there is an effect on him: there’s another car on the road; there’s a greater possibility of accidents; there’s more pollution; there’s more traffic jams. For him individually, it might be a slight increase, but this is extended over the whole population. Now, when you get to other kinds of transactions, the externalities get much larger. So take the financial crisis. One of the reasons for it is that – there are several, but one is – say if Goldman Sachs makes a risky transaction, they – if they’re paying attention – cover their own potential losses. They do not take into account what’s called systemic risk, that is, the possibility that the whole system will crash if one of their risky transactions goes bad. That just about happened with AIG, the huge insurance company. They were involved in risky transactions which they couldn’t cover. The whole system was really going to collapse, but of course state power intervened to rescue them. The task of the state is to rescue the rich and the powerful and to protect them, and if that violates market principles, okay, we don’t care about market principles. The market principles are essentially for the poor. But systemic risk is an externality that’s not considered, which would take down the system repeatedly, if you didn’t have state power intervening. Well there’s another one, that’s even bigger – that’s destruction of the environment. Destruction of the environment is an externality: in market interactions, you don’t pay attention to it. So take tar sands. If you’re a major energy corporation and you can make profit out of exploiting tar sands, you simply do not take into account the fact that your grandchildren may not have a possibility of survival – that’s an externality. And in the moral calculus of capitalism, greater profits in the next quarter outweigh the fate of your grandchildren – and of course it’s not your grandchildren, but everyone’s.
Now the settler-colonial societies are particularly interesting in this regard because you have a conflict within them. Settler-colonial societies are different than most forms of imperialism; in traditional imperialism, say the British in India, the British kind of ran the place: They sent the bureaucrats, the administrators, the officer corps, and so on, but the place was run by Indians. Settler-colonial societies are different; they eliminate the indigenous population. Read, say, George Washington, a leading figure in the settler-colonial society we live in. His view was – his words – was that we have to “extirpate” the Iroquois; they’re in our way. They were an advanced civilization; in fact, they provided some of the basis for the American constitutional system, but they were in the way, so we have to extirpate them. Thomas Jefferson, another great figure, he said, well, we have no choice but to exterminate the indigenous population, the Native Americans; the reason is they’re attacking us. Why are they attacking us? Because we’re taking everything away from them. But since we’re taking their land and resources away and they defend themselves, we have to exterminate them. And that’s pretty much what happened – in the United States almost totally – huge extermination. Some residues remain, but under horrible conditions. Australia, same thing. Tasmania, almost total extermination. Canada, they didn’t quite make it. There’s residues of what are called First Nations around the periphery. Now, those are settler-colonial societies: there are elements of the indigenous populations remaining, and a very striking feature of contemporary society is that, throughout the world – in Canada, Latin America, Australia, India, all over the world, the indigenous societies – what we call tribal or aboriginal or whatever name we use – they’re the ones who are trying to prevent the race to destruction. Everywhere, they’re the ones leading the opposition to destruction of the environment. In countries with substantial indigenous populations, like say in Ecuador and Bolivia, they’ve passed legislation, even constitutional provisions, calling for rights of nature, which is kind of laughed at in the rich, powerful countries, but is the hope for survival.
Ecuador, for example, made an offer to Europe – they have a fair amount of oil – to leave the oil in the ground, where it ought to be, at a great loss to them – huge loss for development. The request was that Europe would provide them with a fraction – payment – of the loss – a small fraction – but the Europeans refused, so now they’re exploiting the oil. And if you go to southern Colombia, you find indigenous people, campesinos, Afro-Americans struggling against gold mining, just horrible destruction. Same in Australia, against uranium mining; and so on. At the same time, in the settler-colonial societies, which are the most advanced and richest, that’s where the drive is strongest toward the destruction of the environment. So you read a speech by, say, Obama, for example, at Cushing, Oklahoma – Cushing is kind of the center for bringing together and storing the fossil fuels which flow into there and are distributed. It was an audience of oil types. To enormous applause, he said that during his administration more oil had been lifted than any previous one – for many, many years. He said pipelines are crossing America under his administration to the extent that practically everywhere you go, you’re tripping across a pipeline; we’re going to have 100 years of energy independence; we’ll be the Saudi Arabia of the 21st century – in short, we’ll lead the way to disaster. At the same time, the remnants of the indigenous societies are trying to prevent the race to disaster. So in this respect, the settler-colonial societies are a striking illustration of, first of all, the massive destructive power of European imperialism, which of course includes us and Australia, and so on. And also the – I don’t know if you’d call it irony, but the strange phenomenon of the most so-called “advanced,” educated, richest segments of global society trying to destroy all of us, and the so-called “backward” people, the pre-technological people, who remain on the periphery, trying to restrain the race to disaster. If some extraterrestrial observer were watching this, they’d think the species was insane. And, in fact, it is. But the insanity goes back to the basic institutional structure of RECD. That’s the way it works. It’s built into the institutions. It’s one of the reasons it’s going to be very hard to change.
JC-S: In a speech reproduced over 20 years ago in the film version of Manufacturing Consent, you describe hegemonic capitalist ideology as reducing the life-world of Earth to an “infinite resource” and “an infinite garbage can.” Even then, you had identified the capitalist tendency toward total destruction: you speak of a looming cancellation of destiny for humanity if the madness of capitalism is not halted within this, the “possibly terminal phase of human existence.” The very title and argumentation of Hegemony or Survival (2003) continue in this line, and in Hopes and Prospects (2010), you claim the threat to the chance for decent survival to be one of the major externalities produced, again, by RECD. How do you think a resurgent international anarchist movement might respond positively to such alarming trends?
In my view, anarchism is just the most advanced form of political thought. As I’ve said, it draws from the Enlightenment, its best ideals; the primary contributions of classical liberalism carry it forward. Parecon, which you mentioned, is one illustration – they don’t call themselves anarchists – but there are others like it. So I think that a resurgent anarchist movement, which would be the peak of human intellectual civilization, should join with the indigenous societies of the world so that they don’t have the burden to save humanity from its own craziness. This should take place within the richest, most powerful societies. It’s kind of a moral truism that the more privilege you have, the more responsibility you have. It’s elementary in every domain: you have privilege; you have opportunities; you have choices: you have responsibilities. In the rich, powerful societies, privileged people like us – we’re all privileged people – we have the responsibility to take the lead in trying to prevent the disasters that our own social institutions are creating. It’s outrageous to demand or even observe the poorest, most repressed people in the world taking the lead in trying to save the human species and in fact innumerable other species from destruction. So we should join them. That’s the role of an anarchist movement.
Javier Sethness is a libertarian socialist and rights-advocate, author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Climate and Capitalism, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. Currently, he is writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. He blogs on various aspects of the crises of capital at Notes Toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism.
Persons in and around the Twin Cities area, two AK Press authors are in Minneapolis. You should see them, listen to them, and maybe even buy their books!
Speech to Metalworkers: Anarcho-Syndicalism for South African Unions Today?
Lucien van der Walt
This is an abridged transcript of Lucien van der Walt’s discussion at National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) Political School. The school was held on the theme of “The Political Role of Trade Unions in the Struggle for Socialism” in September 2013. NUMSA is the largest trade union in South Africa. It is an affiliate of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and has been a radical opponent of the policies of the ruling African National Congress to which both COSATU and the the South African Communist Party (SACP) are formally allied.
Lucien was debating anarcho-syndicalist versus Leninist views of the potential of trade unions, with Solly Mapaila, Second Deputy General Secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). He makes an interesting case for the revolutionary potential of (some of) today’s trade unions. So, for those of you who have abandoned such hopes, read on.
A much longer version was printed in ASR #61 2014, pp. 11-20. The PDF is available here
Lucien begins by responding to David Masondo’s presentation, titled “From Rustenburg to Ongoye: The Evolution of the SACP’s Programmatic Approach”
[…] LUCIEN: Okay now, Comrade David, you lay out only two options.
First: we fix the SACP or, second, maybe we set up a SACP Mark 2, the new version, the new edition.
Comrades who are auto workers know that every couple of years you bring out a new car. The problem is that a car is a car. And a car can’t fly, and if there is a problem with cars only some changes can be made. There are certain things that they can’t do and certain things they can do. Same for parties.
Maybe the question is to think about the political form itself. Is the political party an appropriate form? Do we need a party to carry out the political vanguard role of the working class? Why can’t this role be done by a trade union? Right now, actually, that’s what’s happening. We are debating if it’s a possibility, but right now we have a situation where NUMSA is ALREADY providing a vanguard leadership to the working class. Not just in its own ranks. Sections of COSATU [the Congress of South African Trade Unions], sections of the unemployed, sections of social movements, they all look to NUMSA.
You now want to bring the SA Communist Party back on track, although you have left it far behind. You’ve left it behind; you, the unions, are far ahead of that party. You are also two steps to the left of the Communist Party. You are playing a vanguard role that the Communist Party hasn’t done. But then, you say: “No, we must go back to the Communist Party to have a vanguard”!
FLOOR: Laughter and applause
LUCIEN: So that doesn’t make sense to me. I am saying that it’s a issue about the form, and the method. If you want to give political direction to the working class, why can’t you, the unions, do it?
Why can’t the union be a vanguard ideological and mobilizing force? Why can’t NUMSA, for example, be the core of a union movement that shifts things?
That’s what you have done already! It’s not my idea, it’s YOUR idea and it is what you have done already.
So that would be my suggestion:… I ask: is there not a third option? Not SA Communist Party Mark 2. Not SA Communist Party, the 2014 edition. Not SA Communist Party rebranded as a “mass worker party.”
But rather, a third form of politics here, which is a REVOLUTIONARY TRADE UNION MOVEMENT that will provide a link between the different layers of the working class. Provide the basis of a bottom-up coalition of social movements and other unions in class struggle. And that will put on the forefront, not nationalization by the state, but collectivization: workers’ control of the means of production through the union. Through the union, not through the state: through the union.
So, I will leave it there…
MC (Oupa Bodibe): [...] I have several questions for you. Lucien, there are two arguments that should be taken forward today. One is the view that trade unions tend to “standardize” capitalism. They support it, okay? Because if you looking at the capitalism that has become more social friendly, or more developmental and also more pro-poor, workers now have a much bigger role to ensure the equal distribution of resources. That is the point I want to make.
The second argument is that one that Comrade Dinga Sikwebu talked about earlier: the inherent conservatism of the trade union movement. This is something that is coming up in meetings.
Do you think these statements are valid for all times? Or do they speak to different historical positions and balances of power in the trade union movement?
LUCIEN: Let’s step back. The arguments that I will criticize, the arguments that Comrade Oupa is alluding to, the arguments that unions are always inherently limited, reformist and economistic, are summed up in V.I. Lenin’s What is To be Done?
So what does that work say? And is it right? If we take What is To be Done? at face value, it essentially suggests that it is the normal nature of unions to be concerned only with day-to-day and narrow economic issues.
If we have to take Lenin’s What is To be Done? at its face value, it also says that unions are reformist, in the sense that they only look at small issues. That in fact they are unable, in a fundamental way, to look at larger issues. That this is partly because they supposedly divide the working class. And there’s something in this: NUMSA deals with metal and allied industries, while other COSATU unions deal with, for example, teachers and schools, and you are all in different unions.
So from Lenin’s perspective, part of the problem is that unions are dealing with small issues, they are dealing with the narrowest economic issues, and they reflect the divisions within the working class.
And for Lenin, these reasons meant that unions really struggle to think beyond the immediate issues. They struggle to think beyond capitalism and to imagine a better, transformed society. And this is where Lenin then brings in the argument for the unions having to be permanently led by a so-called Marxist “vanguard party,” a party of the type that the SA Communist Party claims to represent. To put it another way, the unions cannot be revolutionary, and cannot play a key role in fighting for socialism, UNLESS [says Lenin] a Marxist vanguard party is giving them orders. They can be “revolutionary” only when they aid a Communist Party, and even then, only by providing some muscle, not a political direction, not a leading role.
But is this line of thinking really correct? Well, I think one way to look at all of these issues is to be historical. And if we do that, we have to admit that some unions – and there is no way we can doubt that – some unions are conservative. Some unions are reformist, and all they interested in is better wages and better conditions. In this sense they are also economistic. They fit Lenin’s model.
But that’s not the same thing as saying that ALL unions, in ALL circumstances, are narrowly trapped in reformism and economism. I think if we want to look more historically, it becomes possible to see a range of union experiences that go far beyond what Leninist theory would predict
The problem with Lenin’s argument is that while unions have reformist tendencies, they are just TENDENCIES. There are OTHER forces going in other directions, and these can take unions much further than Lenin’s What is To be Done? suggests.
So we can find many unions which conform perfectly to Lenin’s model. And maybe the Russian trade unions that Lenin was dealing with conformed perfectly to his model.
But if we look historically and globally there is a wide range of unions which are something beyond reformist, something beyond economistic, something beyond simply dividing the working class.
I find it strange at a NUMSA Political School, a union political school, which is dealing entirely with socialism and larger issues of strategy, and which is almost being driven entirely by union activists and intellectuals and associated people, a whole congress that isn’t being led by a party, to be debating whether unions are reformist and suggest unions are helpless without parties.
Right here, you are refuting Lenin through your actions. If Lenin’s argument is right, this Political School could not be happening. This could not be happening! This event is all an illusion. If unions are always reformist and economistic, and Lenin is right, well then maybe you are not even in this room. And if you are, you are wasting your time here. You get me?
But I don’t think it is an illusion… I think Lenin is simply wrong.
A refutation provided by the anarcho-syndicalist Spanish Revolution
Now let’s take this argument another way, which is to look at an example from history.
Where a trade union that did something that sets the bar on what unions can do. Seeing as we have spoken a bit about historical circumstances, I am going to mention a trade union federation that existed in Spain, one that was founded in 1910. This trade union in Spain, we will call it by its initials, the CNT.
The CNT means the “National Confederation of Labor,” and it was set up in Spain in 1910. It was by the mid-1930s, in Spain, the leading force in the working class. By that stage the CNT had organized nearly 2 million workers. Spain’s population at the time was round about 24 million. So if we want to put it into South African terms of today, in our own proportions, the CNT would be around 4 million strong.
It was a union in the Bakuninist tradition – that’s to say, in the anarchist or anarcho-syndicalist tradition. And the CNT did not confine itself to wages or to working conditions. Yes, it fought those fights. Fiercely. But it never stopped at dealing with those fights. It ran 36 newspapers and periodicals, 36 publications, including the biggest daily newspaper in much of Spain.
Comrade Solly is quite right, a large amount of the press is controlled by private capital in our country. You can go to a shop here, and what do you get? Capitalist media.
But what do OUR unions have in the way of mass media in South Africa? We have our internal union newspapers. But basically we wait for the capitalist press to print our press statements, and do what they like with them. Publicly we have nothing.
Well, the CNT produced its own newspapers. And these newspapers outsold and out-competed the capitalist and government newspapers. It had its own radio station and its own movies. In every single working class neighborhood where the CNT was strong, the CNT set up workers’ centers. These workers’ centers organized people, it gave a space where people could organize. These provided a space where the working class outside of the union was educated, including kids. Millions of people went through these centers. The CNT printed millions and millions of books and pamphlets.
And the CNT was a union which stressed direct action. It did not vote in elections. It REFUSED to vote in elections. It did not ally to any political party. It said: “What do we need a political party for?” It out-competed, in the Spanish case, the Spanish Communist Party (PCE).
This party, PCE, claimed to lead the working class, to be its most revolutionary force – it was far less radical, and certainly far less popular, than the CNT. When CNT was reaching 2 million strong, the Spanish Communist Party was 10,000 strong. And this is the Marxist “vanguard” party. With 10,000 members! Well, workers didn’t believe it was the “vanguard” – they believed CNT was the vanguard, in the sense of being the leading radical force in the class.
Now the CNT built up over the years generations of anarchist/ syndicalist cadre. And it trained them through what it called “revolutionary gymnastics.” Does anybody here go to gym? A gymnasium, where you train.
[...] Well, what the CNT did was, because they believed that the real power of the working class lay in its own action and its own resources and its own self-reliance, the CNT consistently tried to use direct action. This was the “gym” to train revolutionaries.
It didn’t use the courts or elections. It didn’t use the courts to try and stop evictions; it would rather stop the evictions physically; it would rather use a rent strike. If somebody in the union was assassinated by the state, it would… It would do what? Tell me what you think they did? They shot back, shot back. CNT developed its own military structures. The CNT worked inside the army as well, and built cells among the soldiers.
Now, these struggles, these experiences, these methods, were a “revolutionary gymnasium,” a training ground, a place where the working class could get stronger, and fitter, and trained for the battle of the classes. Even a small wage struggle could, treated properly, be part of the training in the revolutionary gymnasium.
Now you can imagine that any state, any state, seeing a union like CNT emerging, would start to get quite alarmed. Spain in those days was attracting a lot of foreign investment. It was a country with a lot of poverty, a lot of unemployment, a lot of struggle. This sounds familiar to us as South Africans…
[...] This was a trade union federation, a revolutionary trade union. The Spanish ruling class did not take comfort in Lenin’s What is to be Done?, with its predictions that such a thing as the CNT was impossible. The CNT was doing this without being told what to do by a Communist Party. A revolutionary trade union, it had allies among youth structures; it had allies within community movements, allies among woman’s structures.
But it had no Communist Party that led it. It didn’t NEED it, didn’t WANT it, and it wasn’t worried about Lenin’s What is to Be Done? telling it that could not do what it was ACTUALLY DOING.
An alternative to electoral politics
Now, I am NOT saying that every union can be revolutionary. But I am saying that with the correct ideology and with bottom-up CNT- (or NUMSA-) type structures a union CAN be revolutionary. It can play the political role that is usually taken by political parties. AND DO IT BETTER.
The last thing I will just say on this, Comrade Oupa, is this. The CNT didn’t see revolutions as which party you vote for in elections. It didn’t see revolution as who you vote for. It didn’t see the options for the working class movement, as this party or that party, or this faction of that party, and this faction of that party.
It was quite clear, the state is an enemy. The state, by its nature, is part of the ruling class. The people you vote for join the ruling class. You can put the best man at the top, three years later, he will look like the man you threw out.
LUCIEN: The anarchist Bakunin said “You can take the reddest radical and put him on the throne of the Tsar, and within three years you will have a new Tsar.”
LUCIEN: Now because they had this politics, what they did was, rather than set up a party and vote for it, and then get disillusioned in elections, and then look for a new party or a new party leader to fix the mess, they understood why ELECTIONS DON’T WORK. Not for the working class.
Elections, they argued, were a graveyard of politics. You send your best cadre into parliament, and they never come back!
FLOOR: Laughter and applause.
Revolutionary unions and movements, not party politics
In the 1980s the anti-apartheid struggle wasn’t fought by parties, … it was fought by mass movements. There was the United Democratic Front which brought together churches, community organizations, youth organizations, unemployed movements and various political organizations. It wasn’t led by a party, even though it leaned one way. It worked alongside trade unions, like FOSATU and then later COSATU.
This was political action; this was political in profound ways. But the UDF was not the one who negotiated in the 1990s, that was the ANC, and this people’s power and this type of politics was lost.
The ANC leadership came later, from exile in the 1990s when the job of struggle was done, and said “Well, we led the struggle. Well, we have the right to make decisions.” They then closed down the UDF and they made an elite pact, they made a pact with white monopoly capital, at the same time as the important 1994 democratic breakthrough was happening.
We can talk all we like about “primary” and “secondary” enemies. But the current and ANC-headed state apparatus is ALLIED to white monopoly capital. But it’s not just a tool; it’s not just a victim. It’s an active participant. It is an ACTOR in that situation, a strategic enemy in its own right, from the view of the anarcho-syndicalists at least.
The ruling class in South Africa has got two wings: it’s got white monopoly capital based in the private sector, and it’s got the black state elite, that is the state managers who are based in the state: they are wielding the state. The state controls 45 percent of fixed capital assets in South Africa. It is a major economic player: the state is the biggest employer in South Africa, it’s the biggest land owner, and it has an army as well.
Who controls that? It’s NOT white monopoly capital, in some sort of surreptitious way. IT’S THE BLACK POLITICAL ELITE. White monopoly capital is working in ALLIANCE with this state elite because they have the same interests. But it’s not just giving the orders.
What I am saying is: it’s not like we have the situation where we have some sell-outs in the government who (if we change) will fight white monopoly capital. What we have is a situation where the black political elite allied to the white economic elite and around a common programme of neo-liberalism, and they are therefore united against the whole working class, including the black working class majority. And the ANC is embedded in this elite pact.
It’s not a situation of a few bad apples; it’s a situation of a tree that bears bad fruit. And you can give that tree fertilizer, like by voting, it just gets bigger.
Taking the state seriously: Outside and against it
[Anarcho-syndicalism] takes the state very seriously. It doesn’t see the state as a “thing” out there, where you can just elect a few people and they will just change the system.
Anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism says that it is not the politicians who change the state. RATHER, IT IS THE STATE THAT CHANGES THE POLITICIANS. It is not the politicians who change the state; it is the state that changes the politicians.
Who would have thought in 1990 that Nelson Mandela would be the president when the ANC and the country’s state adopted the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR) in 1996? Who could have even imagined that?
We have to explain that scientifically. Marxist comrades keep talking about “material conditions.” But the NDR strategy ends up with idealist approaches.
Well look, you put someone in charge of the state, a capitalist state, they have to keep capitalism going. Those are “material conditions.” And they are not doing it for free either. Cyril Ramaphosa was a heroic leader of workers in the 1987 miners’ strike, and now where is he? He is a billionaire who owns mining shares, including at Lonmin, where the Marikana massacre took place a year ago. And evidence shows he called on police to “deal” with those Marikana workers. A changed man!
You don’t change the system by changing a few people; you change the situation by putting in another system.
States cannot be wielded by the working class.
You don’t just keep changing the ingredients in a soup and think it’s not soup. You’ve got to cook to a totally different recipe. As I was saying this morning, comrades, if a car doesn’t fly, a car does not fly. You can paint it purple and it still wouldn’t fly. You can call it the new model, it won’t fly. The state, and this is the thing to think about from the anarcho-syndicalist tradition, is something which cannot be wielded by the working class. It CANNOT be wielded by the working class.
Either you elect a reformist party, and that party ends up, over time, being co-opted in to the ruling class, like the ANC, or a revolutionary party, like the Russian Bolsheviks, seizes state power.
But such a revolutionary party doesn’t just seize power from capital; it also seizes power FROM THE WORKING CLASS. And you can find, even as Comrade David on the panel was saying this morning, that your socialist party can, in fact, be the biggest enemy of the working class that you can get.
When you look at the situation of the Soviet Union, the heartland of Marxism-Leninism, comrades call that “socialism,” people call that “socialism.”
Well, comrades, that was a country with mass murder perpetrated by a Communist Party. That was a country with forced labor camps, with a pass law system and with no free trade unions. Why do you think the working class overthrew that system from 1989-1991? Why do you think a Communist Party can’t get elected these days anywhere in Eastern Europe? Because people have had a Communist Party in power. They’re fine, they’re covered, they’re DONE with such parties.
Comrade Solly makes the point that the Paris Commune was defeated and comrades: sadly that is true, it was defeated. But was that BECAUSE it lacked a party? He makes the point that Spain 1936 was defeated. Was that because it lacked a party?
In Spain in 1936-1939, what Comrade Solly isn’t mentioning, it was the Communist Party, the Spanish Communist Party, working with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed those anarcho-syndicalist collectives I was speaking about. It wasn’t something out there called “the bourgeoisie,” it was the Communist Party backed by Stalin and backed by the KGB secret police, that were working in concert with the bourgeoisie, that destroyed the Spanish revolution. Long before the right-wing military took over.
It’s well documented. This isn’t a matter of opinion. They, the Party, said it’s “ultra-left” so unfortunately the “ultra-left” workers who were running society had to be put down. Put down like dogs.
Confusions on the state
Meanwhile, our SA Communist Party comrades are getting confused. They talk as if the state is a neutral entity which is only SOMETIMES against the working class. And then they also talk about Marxism and Leninism but that says something totally different, that the capitalist state, is anti-working class; that is what Lenin himself said. And then they try to put these two contradictory political things together: being in an alliance with a capitalist ANC which uses the capitalist state, and then also calling themselves Marxist-Leninists.
They want have the cake and eat the cake at the same time. If you agree with Marxism-Leninism, this is a capitalist state and no amount of changing the people at the top will make any difference. But then you get told: “No, vote for the ANC, that’s the way.” This makes no sense.
But the problem is even bigger; it’s a problem in Marxist theory itself. Marxist materialism says the economic “base” determines the political “superstructure.” Marxist materialism says the “superstructure” includes the state. But then Marxism often says something illogical: use the state to change society. The revolutionary strategy boils down to setting up a so-called “workers’ state,” a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” to change the base, a state to abolish capitalism. This is no different in essence from trying to use a capitalist state to change society; in both cases, the idea is that the state is the motor of change.
Now isn’t it illogical in Marx’s own terms to say we can capture the state and change the “base”? If the “base” determines the “superstructure” and it is a capitalist base, you cannot change that base using the state. That’s a really idealistic approach; the anarchist Bakunin was not an idealist like this. He saw this contradiction. So, you certainly can’t use a capitalist state to bring about socialism if you accept the theoretical basics of Marxism itself. But that’s what Marxist political strategy demands! And that’s what the whole NDR idea involves too.
A more sensible approach may be this: if you study anarcho-syndicalism, it’s argued that the state is allied to capital and it can’t break that alliance. It is an unbreakable marriage. They have a common interest. The state needs the capitalist to pay taxes; the capitalists need the state to shoot people, crudely speaking.
Okay, now, if this is the case how do you move forward? And this is where I am going to start pulling this input together.
A strategy for a bottom-up anarcho-syndicalist socialist transition
The working class needs a theory and it needs to translate that into a strategy for DEEP CHANGE.
You need a strategy and you need tactics. Comrade Oupa was saying that you need something appropriate to South Africa. Well, to have a strategy you have got to have a vision where you want to go. To have a vision of where you want to go, you have to know what is wrong in society. And you have to look at specific societies closely.
Fundamentally what anarcho-syndicalism argues is that what is wrong with society is that a small elite runs society. But it’s not just an economic elite, it is also a POLITICAL elite. So as long as an elite runs society it will run society by the elite, for the elite and the state leadership will be of the elite.
And this is part of a whole society, based on exploitation and domination, on top-down power relations, in inequality, inequity, exploitation and suffering, a society where the National Question cannot be fully answered…
Comrade Solly said that Bakunin ignored inequality; that is just not true… The anarchists insisted that all relations of oppression, by gender, by race, by class, by nation, come to an end. That includes the oppression meted out by the capitalists and politicians against the working class. But it also means resolving the National Question in a progressive, working-class way, and it also means fighting for complete gender equality, including in our own movements, and aiming at getting rid all elites, black or white…
For the anarchists, the only way out of this endless circle of “vote for that party, vote for this party, vote for that party and never get anywhere” is if you actually remove that system.
Where you can create a democracy that is bottom-up, based on workers’ collectives, the socialization of production, that is based on an educated population that understands its rights and understands how to run things, that is based on human need before profit, that gets rid of the commodity form entirely, that gets rid of the market but also does not replace it with a central plan and a central dictatorship, but with bottom-up plans…
Well, there is nothing idealistic here, we are talking about a working class democracy, about a free socialist society, the aim and vision of anarcho-syndicalists. Now, if you want that world you have to build a type of movement that does two things. An anarchist/syndicalist movement, first that builds COUNTER POWER in the working class, that builds institutions in the working class that can govern society.
Not institutions that hand power over to politicians, but working class institutions that will THEMSELVES take power – first and foremost revolutionary trade unions. But also organizations in other sectors, including working-class communities.
Organizations that are the EMBRYO of the new society, organizations that BUILD TOMORROW TODAY, within the shell of the old society. Organizations that resist ruling class power now, with working class counterpower, that build to eventually themselves directly REPLACE ruling class power with working class power.
So: counter power. A CNT- or NUMSA-type union is key here.
Secondly, you need a REVOLUTIONARY COUNTERCULTURE which is a radical mass consciousness. It’s a mass consciousness that understands what is wrong in society and how to fix it.
A consciousness that tells people we are in a class-divided society. You can vote for Helen Zille of the Democratic Alliance, you can vote for Jacob Zuma of the ANC. But those are just different wings of the same upper class. That the solution isn’t that empty choice, it is to build something else, new.
A position that says society needs to be based on grassroots democracy, on a democratically planned participatory economy, based on distribution according to need, based on common property, and without a state elite and without a business elite.
And to get that society, to reiterate, for anarchists, for anarcho-syndicalists, for Bakuninists, you need to build counter power: the organizational forms that prefigure the new society. Those are the seeds of the new society.
And the ideological forms that need to become hegemonic within the working class: those are the ideological forms of the new world in the making, that is revolutionary counter-culture.
The aim is not the rule of a political party that is supposedly revolutionary, but a revolutionary WORKING CLASS, with revolutionary ideas promoted by FAI-type and CNT-type structures, that the working class can directly implement, through its organizations.
Now the TACTICS to build such a project are a separate matter. I have laid out a strategy, I have laid out an aim and I have laid out an analysis. The tactics, what you would need to do in a given situation – that is not a simple thing of just sucking it out of your thumb. You would need to think very concretely how you would build such a project. You would need to think about how you lay the basis for a CNT and FAI in South Africa.
I’m not saying anyone HAS to build it, I am saying you should think about if you want to build it. Need revolutionary theory? That’s fine, what is your revolutionary theory then? If you agree with a certain theory, you need different tactics at different times. That needs a whole other discussion and a whole other afternoon. But I have given the elements of an anarcho-syndicalist approach, and the case against our current trajectory as unions….
Now I think with that I can leave most of the remaining things raised aside. I would like to thank NUMSA for giving me this opportunity here. And I would like to thank all of you for participating in a larger discussion over these days that allows us to recover the memory of our own class, the different political traditions of our own class that are very diverse and rich and provide an armory of intellectual and ideological tools for struggle. Because when I talk about anarcho-syndicalism, I am not talking about something new, something alien. I am talking about RECOVERING AND ACTIVATING THE COLLECTIVE MEMORY OF OUR OWN CLASS, the political traditions of our own class, arming ourselves from the armoury of intellectual and ideological tools of and for the working class.
Okay. Thank you!
FLOOR: Sustained applause
We’re always glad when the ideas in our books jump off their pages and morph into real-life (or online!) discussions, so we were pleased to see that one of the pieces from our recently published book Queering Anarchism has been making the rounds online lately. Jamie Heckert’s contribution, “Anarchy Without Opposition,” has just been excerpted on OccupyWallStreet.net. Here’s a taste:
“Anarchist politics are usually defined by their opposition to state, capitalism, patriarchy, and other hierarchies. My aim in this essay is to queer that notion of anarchism in a number of ways. To queer is to make strange, unfamiliar, weird; it comes from an old German word meaning to cross. What new possibilities arise when we learn to cross, to blur, to undermine, or overflow the hierarchical and binary oppositions we have been taught to believe in?
Hierarchy relies on separation. Or rather, the belief in hierarchy relies on the belief in separation. Neither is fundamentally true. Human beings are extrusions of the ecosystem—we are not separate, independent beings. We are interdependent bodies, embedded in a natural world itself embedded in a vast universe. Likewise, all the various social patterns we create and come to believe in are imaginary (albeit with real effects on our bodyminds). Their existence depends entirely on our belief, our obedience, our behavior. These in turn are shaped by imagined divisions. To realize that the intertwined hierarchical oppositions of hetero/homo, man/woman, whiteness/color, mind/body, rational/emotional, civilized/savage, social/natural, and more are all imaginary is perhaps a crucial step in letting go of them. How might we learn to cross the divide that does not really exist except in our embodied minds?
This, for me, is the point of queer: to learn to see the world through new eyes, to see not only what might be possible but also what already exists (despite the illusions of hierarchy). I write this essay as an invitation to perceive anarchism, to perceive life, differently. I’m neither interested in recruiting you, nor turning you queer. My anarchism is not better than your anarchism. Who am I to judge? Nor is my anarchism already queer. It is always becoming queer. How? By learning to keep queering, again and again, so that my perspective, my politics, and my presence can be fresh, alive.
Queering might allow recognition that life is never contained by the boxes and borders the mind invents. Taxonomies of species or sexualities, categories of race or citizenship, borders between nations or classes or types of politics—these are fictions. They are never necessary. To be sure, fictions have their uses. Perhaps in using them, we may learn to hold them lightly so that we, in turn, are not held by them.”
You can read the full excerpt here, and then check out the thoughtful response to “Anarchy Without Opposition” that was published recently on the “cultivating alternatives” blog. Here’s just a bit of it:
“At some points, Heckert calls for an anarchism with ‘no borders, no purity, no opposites,’ which seems a bit unrealistic in practice, since our lives are full of all kinds of borders and boundaries, some of which are desirable, and others that we can’t simply get rid of (refusing to ‘see’ the borders of private property will probably land you in jail). But I think his main point is that we don’t have to take these borders for granted; they can be queered, unsettled, and shifted. In this sense, this isn’t a call to get rid of all borders or divisions or oppositions, but to pay attention to what happens to them; to attend to them, to loosen them up, rather than assuming that they’re necessary or good or right…”
“…Furthermore, the really important and interesting stuff happens at the borders, not inside them. Heckert draws on permaculture’s insight that edges are the most productive and fertile parts of ecosystems, suggesting that anarchism would benefit from attending to the social edges, where people and communities permeate and connect: ‘The more that anarchism, a many branched river in our social ecosystem, mixes and mingles with swamp and stone, soil and soul, the more diverse forms of life will benefit’ (69).
An important problem with all this (and I wished he spent more time on this) is the fact that these ways of being aren’t just beliefs that we can change by thinking critically or declaring ourselves otherwise. As Heckert puts it: ‘declaring a politics to be nonhierarchical, anarchist, feminist, safe, or queer does not magically make this happen. It takes a different kind of magic: practice’ (70). Both the positive and negative ways of being are held in our bodies; they’re accumulated habits of relating to ourselves and to each other, and they’re often-unconscious attachments and investments. And working at being otherwise means working that through our bodies, and shifting our unconscious desires. How? I think Heckert’s suggestion is that we practice radical acceptance: of ourselves, of others, of the world, and of its hierarchies and borders (even if we want to tear them down): ‘there is no such thing as evil; there is nothing to oppose. Instead, we might learn to both empathize with the desires of others, and to express our own’ (71). This is a politics ‘that starts off accepting everything just as it is. From the basis of acceptance, we might then ask, what service can be offered? How can anarchy be nurtured, rather than demanded, forced?’ (71).”
You can read the whole response here.
And of course, if you haven’t already, we encourage you to check out Queering Anarchism to read “Anarchy Without Opposition” its entirety, as well as the many other thought-provoking pieces in the collection!
“We don’t see the prison-industrial complex as broken; we see it working very, very well at surveilling, policing, imprisoning, and killing exactly who it targets.”
Former AK Press collective member and current communications director of Critical Resistance, Isaac Ontiveros, gave a brilliant interview to Vice magazine recently. Read it and learn why abolition is the only real solution, not only to our twisted prison system, but to the whole interconnected and thoroughly racist network of surveillance, policing, the courts, and imprisonment. Support Critical Resistance, please…and read the book we co-published with them: Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle against the Prison Industrial Complex.
Here’s an excerpt (you can read the whole thing on here):
VICE: What does it mean to be a “prison abolitionist”?
Isaac Ontiveros: What we mean is that we want to end the whole system of mutually reinforcing relationships between surveillance, policing, the courts, and imprisonment that fuel, maintain, and expand social and economic inequity and institutional racism. So, not just prisons.
By “abolition,” we mean that we are interested in doing away with the system rather than finding ways to make it work better or for it to be kinder and gentler. We don’t see the prison-industrial complex as broken; we see it working very, very well at surveilling, policing, imprisoning, and killing exactly who it targets. As abolitionists, we work to diminish the scope and power of the prison-industrial complex while simultaneously increasing the ability of those communities targeted by it to be stronger, healthier, and more self-determined.
Why do you think imprisonment came to be the dominant means of delivering “justice” in America?
The US government, along with state and local governments, has always been involved one way or another in enforcing racial inequities—whether through social codes, laws and statutes, policing policies and practices, encouragement of vigilante violence, or outright domestic warfare against certain segments of the population. And poor people of color have borne the brunt of this violence—and, importantly, they’ve also been at the forefront in fighting back.
Think about the incredible political repression that goes on in this country; think about the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), unleashed against organizations like the Black Panther Party. Think of the massive cuts to social and health services, massive job loss, attacks on organized labor, and de facto permanent unemployment. Think of the war on drugs, the war on gangs, the war on terror. Think of the thousands of new offenses added to the criminal codes—the equivalent of one federal offense a week between 2000 and 2007. Think of the positively virulent anti-black racism that goes along with this. Think of the militarization of the US-Mexican border and immigrant detention. Think about even small towns having a SWAT team and zero-tolerance policing and of the largest prison-building project in world history in the state of California. Think about the disenfranchisement and dispossession of formerly imprisoned people. Think of the absolute pervasiveness of surveillance as well as media images that perpetuate some of the basest and most racist stereotypes imaginable of who is a criminal, or an undesirable, or a terrorist. And now think of the instability created by such violence and the need to control that instability—and the need to keep people from fighting back.
The US doesn’t actually imprison all that many violent people. Most of those behind bars committed nonviolent drug or property offenses. But what about the violent ones? Aren’t we better off having murderers and rapists off of the streets?
Well, I think an interesting part of that question is that even as the US has managed to lock up more people than any other country in the world, and has built probably the most massive and repressive policing, legal, and imprisonment system in history, we still tend to be pretty terrified in this country. This is not to say that violence—including sexual violence and murder—isn’t a real thing or a real fear. But I think in order to build up any hope of moving beyond the bleak situation we are in… we have to ask a few tough questions, and we have to change quite a few things. How do we relate to violence in our communities vis-à-vis the terrible violence that is wrought by the US government on a global scale, or by the prison-industrial complex domestically on a daily basis? How do we understand violence in relationship to the devastation caused by racism and economic inequity? How do we relate to sexual violence when we are inundated with horrendously misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic images? Our fears might be real, but our fears are also being produced and exploited. And then, of course, how do we think of anything else but prisons and police when we’ve be indoctrinated with this idea that all problems are solved by locking people up?
At the same time, violence is a very real concern, especially in the communities that are most impacted by the prison-industrial complex. I think we are better off if we can develop sustainable and transformative ways to confront, address, and intervene in situations of harm and violence. And the thing is, for the most part, especially in marginalized communities, people are already working to resolve conflict and address harm without using police or imprisonment all the time. And they are doing it around some egregious forms of harm, including murder and sexual violence. And sometimes some things work better than others. As an abolitionist, I am always interested in figuring out ways to address harm and violence that don’t rely on using the police.
Sure, America may not be as violent as popularly imagined, but there is still a lot of violence in this country. What would a prison abolitionist do if they found out his next-door neighbor was a serial killer or rapist? In the absence of viable alternatives, I think I might call the cops. Is that wrong? Would it be better if I took justice into my own hands?
Rather than saying, “Is it wrong to call the cops?” I want us to ask, “Is there anything we can do besides call the cops?” I think the more we can ask ourselves that question, and ask it among our friends, families, coworkers, neighbors, organizations, etc., and try to ask it and answer it as imaginatively as possible before things escalate, the more we will be able to respond swiftly and thoughtfully during crises.
If you mean, “What could I do if an act of violence was being carried out in front of me?” I would do everything in my power to stop it—and if I were able, this would include drawing in, as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible, the help and support of others. And then, yes, as far as all the lessons we’ve been taught about what to do next, we are in a no-person’s land. But the fact of the matter is, people deal with these situations all the time—sometimes they use violence, sometimes they don’t; sometimes the person who does harm is banished from the family or the community, and sometimes they are drawn closer. I heard a story of an indigenous community where one person murdered another person. There was this long process by which it was agreed that the person who did the murder would essentially replace the person he killed as far as his social and economic responsibilities. Gacaca courts in Rwanda and conferencing circles among indigenous communities in Canada also teach us very useful lessons about the complex ways survivors of very serious violence have attempted to hold those who’ve done harm accountable.
I would challenge the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to these types of situations. That’s the response that the prison-industrial complex has offered us, and that hasn’t worked—except to exacerbate the social instability that fuels the violence we see in our communities. I live in a neighborhood where people are killed from time to time, but it doesn’t help me to understand the person doing the killing to think of them as some monster or serial killer out of a movie. I hope my anger or fear or frustration about this type of violence would lead me to want to fight to change the context in which it occurs, so that it happens less and less in the first place.
Abolishing prisons seems like a pretty distant goal. What then is a prison abolitionist to do in the meantime?
Like any social change, it will take time and is something that requires taking decisive and strategic steps toward the world we want to see. We have a broad vision of a world without prisons, police, surveillance, and the inequities they defend, and as we takes steps toward that world, we understand better what the path forward is going to look like.
In Los Angeles, we work with other organizations and community members to fight back the expansion of the LA County Jail, which is the largest jail system in the world. We are working to do the same in San Francisco County. In New Orleans, we were able to win a cap on the number of people that can be locked up in the notorious Orleans Parish Prison—no small feat, given that Louisiana has the highest imprisonment rate in the US—so now the challenge is to get people out.
In Oakland, we won a fight against the racist policing policy known as a civil gang injunction, which under threat of arrest and imprisonment restricts the freedom of movement and association of individuals profiled as gang members—in the US, this has never been used against a white person—and now we are working in neighborhoods to develop ways people can take care of one another without using the police. In California as a whole we’ve been successful in winning massive cuts to the prison budget. We’ve also worked with prisoners and their loved ones and advocates to support three massive prison hunger strikes in protest of the state’s use of solitary confinement. We run a mail program and publish a newspaper that goes to thousands of prisoners throughout the US, aimed at working to develop our capacity as activists inside and outside prisons. All of our members are volunteers, and we do most of our work in coalition with the idea that we are think it is necessary to build a movement to both dismantle what keeps us down and to build up the world we believe is possible. At every turn, we try to put forward a vision of what we are for as strongly as we fight what we are againstWorking to improve the conditions faced by those behind bars seems like a good thing, but is there a fear it could make the current system more sustainable, injecting life into an unjust system?
This is a crucial challenge that doesn’t have an easy answer. The system we are up against is not fixed, and those who work as its strategists and technicians aren’t stupid—so it grows, changes, and adapts, and that includes accommodating and adjusting to reforms. Our organizing philosophy cautions us to try to not build up something that we have to knock down later. This is not easy, but is also part of any sustainable process of change. For example, ending solitary confinement doesn’t necessarily mean anyone gets to come home, but it does neutralize one of the main tools prison systems use to inhibit prisoner social and political organization. So organizing against that hopefully increases the capacity of imprisoned people (and those in the communities from which they come) to fight for further gains that might lead to more freedom.
[interview by Charles Davis]
Here are some related books and DVDs if you want to learn more:
As anyone who has read his memoir (Marshall Law: The Life and Times of a Baltimore Black Panther) knows, they failed. Eddie stayed just as active, creating mentoring programs and prison labor unions, organizing prison libraries where there had been none, and generally refusing to accept the conditions the state had relegated him to.
After less than 24 hours on the outside (and with zero sleep), Eddie gave an interview to Democracy Now! You should give the whole thing a listen. It shows just how undefeated this amazing man remains after enduring some of the worst shit the state can dish out. And how sharp and relevant his analysis remains. Below the video, we’ve pasted a bit of that analysis, specifically about the government infiltration and counterinsurgency tactics used to unjustly jail him and so many other (right up to today).
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Marshall “Eddie” Conway. He left prison yesterday after nearly 44 years there. You mentioned that you realized later it was a member of the National Security Agency who was involved in setting up the Black Panther Party chapter in Baltimore, Eddie?
MARSHALL “EDDIE” CONWAY: There was a—the defense captain named Warren Hart, he worked for the National Security Agency. He set up the Black Panther Party. I was instrumental in exposing him after a lengthy investigation, and he fled the country. He went to Canada. He infiltrated Stokely Carmichael’s organization, All-African People’s Revolutionary Party. He was exposed up there after engaging in some skulduggery with the FBI. He went to the Caribbeans, I believe the Bahamas, and he actually undermined some of the political movements down there and actually caused a death or two. And I’m not really sure that he didn’t cause a couple deaths in Maryland in the Black Panther Party, and which is a part of what caused me to actually start investigating him, because one of our members were actually killed as a result of something that he encouraged him to do.
But apparently, and as Bob said, there’s like political prisoners all across the country now from the Black Panther Party that has been victims of the COINTELPRO operation. It undermined a lot of people. It painted a picture that caused people not to get fair trials. It goaded people into responding to the violence that it was encouraging. It caused a lot of our members to get assassinated. It caused a lot of conflicts with other organizations that normally wouldn’t have occurred had they not been in the background manipulating different organizations with poison pen letters, etc.
As a result of the Church Committee hearings in ’75, I believe it was, they determined that that operation was created to perpetrate violence among black groups and among other groups, and that was illegal activity. And some of the agents that participated in it got pardoned by the president, got presidential pardons. But all the Black Panther members that were victims of it didn’t receive pardons. And they are still in prisons right now across the country. They are victims, primarily, because of the skulduggery, but also because of the climate that was created. And so, that’s the kind of operations that were going on then. Now they have kind of like legalized most of that stuff, in terms of spying and so on.
WELCOME HOME, EDDIE!
Gabriel, Melissa, and Pablo—three Chilean comrades—brought their speaking tour to the bay area last weekend. The national tour was sponsored by the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, the Black Rose Anarchist Federation, and the First of May Anarchist Alliance. Here in Oakland, AK Press teamed up with the Bay Area Public School and the Sudo Room to host the event.
Despite having spent five weeks giving dozens of talks and interviews in US cities on both coasts and across the Midwest, they delivered energetic and fascinating presentations on how revolutionary anarchist organizing happens in Chile, touching on student, labor, and feminist organizing, on the practice of “social insertion,” on the distinction between “activism” and “militancy,” on building alliances across political tendencies, and lots more.
Here is the audio (talks plus Q&A). It’s worth the 90-minute listen!
[and thanks to Chuck Morse for the top picture xo)
On the wondrous occasion of Ready for Revolution: The CNT Defense Committees in Barcelona, 1933–1938 getting back from the printer, here is an interview with the author, conducted by alasbarricadas.org when the Spanish edition came out (translated here by Paul Sharkey). It gives a very good overview of the material.
A discussion of the rise and fall of the revolutionary institutions that were the foundation of the Spanish Revolution in the anarchosyndicalist stronghold of Barcelona; the social and organizational context of the anarchosyndicalist movement during the Civil War at the neighborhood level; the conflict between the rank and file militants and the collaborationist “superior committees” of the anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT; the meaning of the “spontaneity” of that movement; and the process that led to its destruction at the hands of the republicans and Stalinists. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Spanish Revolution, our friend and collaborator Agustín Guillamón was interviewed by the editors of the website alasbarricadas. org about his latest book, Los Comités de Defensa de la CNT en Barcelona (1933-1938).
Alasbarricadas—An obligatory question: What were the Defense Committees?
The defense committees were the clandestine military organizations of the CNT, financed by the trade unions, and their activities were subordinated to the latter.
In October 1934, the old tactic of action groups was abandoned in favor of serious and methodical revolutionary preparation. The CNCD said, “There can be no revolution without preparation. We have to put an end to the prejudice in favor of improvisation. This error, involving confidence in the creative instinct of the masses, has caused us to pay a heavy price. We cannot obtain by means of a process of spontaneous generation the indispensable means necessary for waging war on a State that has experience, heavy weaponry, and a greater capacity for offensive and defensive combat”.
The basic defense group would not have too many members, in order to facilitate its clandestine operations and its flexibility, and should have a profound understanding of the character, knowledge, and abilities of each militant. It would be composed of six militants, each of whom was responsible for a specific function:
1. Secretary: Contact with the other cadres, formation of new groups, drafting reports;
2. Personal Investigator: Ascertain the danger posed by enemies;
3. Building Investigator: Draft blueprints and provide statistical reports;
4. Researcher for determining strategic points and tactics for street fighting;
5. Researcher for Public Services;
6. Investigator to determine where to obtain arms, money, and supplies.
It was thought that this number of six militants was the ideal figure for a defense group or team, with the proviso that, in certain cases, one more member could be added for “relief ” purposes. Absolute secrecy was mandatory. These groups were the basic core groups of a revolutionary army, capable of mobilizing more numerous secondary groups, and these, in turn, were to mobilize the entire population.
The defense group was the basic cell of this clandestine military structure of the CNT. Its responsibilities were very precisely demarcated within each neighborhood. The neighborhoods formed a district Defense Committees, which coordinated all these defense cadres, and which received a monthly report from the Secretary of each Defense Committee. The Secretary-Delegate of the district drafted a summary report that he delivered to the District Committee; and the latter, in turn, passed it on to the Local Defense Committee “and the latter passed it on to the Regional and National Defense Committees, respectively”.
The report of the CNCD also included a detailed plan for the organization of the Defense Committees on a regional and national scale, which also embraced all those sectors of the working class, such as railroad workers, trolley conductors, telephone and telegraph operators, postal employees and, in short, all those sectors that, due to the special character of their trades or organizations, were national in scope, with special emphasis on the importance of communications in a revolutionary insurrection. A special section was devoted to the task of infiltration of, propaganda among and the enrollment of sympathizers in the military barracks.
The Defense Committees had two essential functions:
1. Acquisition, maintenance, storage and training in the use of weapons;
2. Logistics in the broadest meaning of the term, from assuring the basic needs of the population and running soup kitchens to the establishment and maintenance of hospitals, schools, cultural centers … and even, during the early stages of the revolution, the recruitment of militias and the provisioning of the columns leaving for the front.
The first Defense cadres were formed shortly after the proclamation of the Republic, and could be considered to be the continuation, reorganization and extension of the armed action and self-defense groups of the years of pistolerismo (1917-1923).
ALB—How were the action groups transformed into defense cadres?
In January 1935, the anarchist groups, Indomables, Nervio, Nosotros, Tierra Libre, and Germen, at a Plenum of the Federation of Anarchist Groups of Barcelona, formed the Local Committee for Revolutionary Preparedness.
The Plenum, confronted by some truly discouraging historical developments— the rise of fascism in Italy, Nazism in Germany, Stalinism in the Soviet Union, and the economic depression accompanied by mass long-term unemployment in the United States and Europe—drafted a Report that opposed these developments with the hope of the revolutionary proletariat. It said: “Amidst the generalized collapse of ideals, parties, and systems, only the revolutionary proletariat remains standing with its program of the reorganization of the foundations of labor and economic and social reality, and solidarity”.
The Report contained a profound critique of the puerile tactics of revolutionary gymnastics and improvisation that had been abandoned in October 1934. It said: “The social revolution cannot be interpreted as a single bold attack, in the style of the coup d’états of Jacobinism, but will instead be the consequence and result of the process of an inevitable civil war whose duration cannot be foreseen”.
Revolutionary preparation for a long civil war required that the comrades confront new challenges that were unthinkable in the framework of the old tactics of the armed groups. The Report said: “In view of the fact that it is not possible to possess in advance the stockpiles of weapons necessary for sustained combat, the Preparedness Committee must undertake a study of how to convert industries in certain strategic zones […] into industries that are capable of providing war materiel for the revolution”. This was the origin of the Commission of War Industries, formed on August 7, 1936, which created a powerful military industry from scratch thanks to the efforts of the workers, coordinated by the CNT’s Eugenio Vallejo Isla, a metal worker, Manuel Martí Pallarés, of the Chemical Workers Union, and Mariano Martín Izquierdo; the responsibility for this achievement was subsequently claimed by bourgeois politicians (Josep Tarradellas), and while it is true that they did contribute to its success, it was “primarily due to the workers in the factories, and to the technicians, whose responsible delegates were granted managerial authority by the CNT from the beginning of the war”. From the action groups and gunmen who practiced a revolutionary gymnastics prior to 1934, the CNT had passed to the creation of information and combat cadres that were viewed as the basic cells of a revolutionary army.
ALB—One question that many people will ask, is if the anarchists could have seized power.
During the first six months of 1936 the group Nosotros engaged in bitter disputes with the other groups of the FAI in Catalonia regarding two fundamental concepts, at a time when it was known for certain that the military was making preparations for a bloody coup d’état. These two concepts were the “seizure of power” and the “revolutionary army”. The pragmatism of the Nosotros group, which was more concerned with insurrectional techniques than with taboos, clashed head-on with the ideological prejudices of the other groups in the FAI, that is, with the rejection of what the latter referred to as “anarchist dictatorship”, and with their deeply ingrained anti-militarism, which left everything to the creative spontaneity of the workers.
This harsh attack against the “anarcho-Bolshevik practices” of the Nosotros group was comprehensively set forth in the journal Más Lejos, edited by Eusebio C. Carbó, whose contributors included Jaime Balius and Mariano Viñuales. Más Lejos published the responses to a survey that it had featured in its first issue of April 1936, which consisted of two questions about electoral abstention, and a third question about the seizure of power, which was framed in the following manner: “Can anarchists, under any circumstances, and OVERCOMING ALL SCRUPLES, accept the seizure of power, in any form, as a means of accelerating the pace of their progress towards the realization of Anarchy?”
Almost all those who participated in the survey responded to this question in the negative. But none of the responses offered a practical alternative to accompany this general rejection of the seizure of power. Anarchist theory and practice seemed to be divorced from one another, on the very eve of the military coup d’état.
At the Plenum of the Barcelona Anarchist Groups, which met in June 1936, García Oliver proposed that the organization of defense cadres, coordinated in neighborhood defense committees in the city of Barcelona, was the model that should be followed, and that they should be extended to cover all of Spain, and that this structure should be coordinated on a national and regional level, in order to form a revolutionary army of the proletariat. This army should be complemented with the creation of guerrilla units of one hundred men each. Many militants opposed García Oliver’s proposals, and put their trust instead in the spontaneity of the workers rather than in a disciplined revolutionary organization. The anti-militarist convictions of many affinity groups led to an almost unanimous rejection of the theses of the Nosotros group, and especially the theses defended by García Oliver.
ALB—How were these Defense Committees transformed into Popular Militias and revolutionary neighborhood committees?
On July 16, the army revolt began in Melilla. By the 18th, the military revolt had spread to all of Morocco, the Canary Islands and Seville.
The military garrison of Barcelona had about six thousand men, as opposed to almost two thousand in the Assault Guards and the two hundred members of the Catalan Autonomous Police. The Civil Guards, concerning whom no one was sure just which side they would join, had about three thousand men. The CNT-FAI had about twenty thousand militants, organized in District Defense Committees, who were ready to take up arms. It agreed, in the liaison committee formed by the CNT with the Generalitat and the loyal military officers, to confront the coup with only one thousand armed militants.
On July 19 and 20 of 1936, in the midst of the fighting in the streets of Barcelona, when the rebel military officers were defeated, the members of the defense committees began to refer to themselves, and were referred to by others, as “the militiamen”. Without any transitional period whatsoever, the defense cadres became Popular Militias. The original structure of the defense cadres had foreseen their extension and growth, by way of the incorporation of secondary cadres. All that had to be done was to find a place within them for the thousands of worker-volunteers, who were joining the fight against fascism, and to send them to Aragon. The confederal militias were transformed into the vanguard of all the armed units that were sent to fight the fascist enemy. They comprised the armed organization of the revolutionary proletariat. They were imitated by the other columns, including those of bourgeois origin. Due to the absence of a single proletarian army, the various parties and organizations created their own party and trade union militias, without any central command and with only the most tenuous coordination.
These defense cadres underwent a dual TRANSFORMATION. On the one hand, they were transformed into the Popular Militias, which from the very first days of the war defined the Aragon front, and inaugurated the collectivization of the land in the liberated Aragonese villages; on the other hand, they were transformed into the revolutionary committees that, in every neighborhood in Barcelona, and in every town in Catalonia, imposed a “new revolutionary order”. Their common origin in the defense cadres caused the confederal militias and the revolutionary committees to maintain very close relations with one another.
The revolutionary committees performed, in every neighborhood or locality, especially in the nine weeks after July 19, the following functions:
1. They confiscated buildings for committee offices, storage of supplies, cultural centers and rationalist schools. They seized and administered hospitals and newspapers;
2. They conducted searches of private homes to requisition weapons, food, money and objects of value;
3. Inspection of suspicious buildings by armed squads, in order to arrest “cops”, snipers, priests, reactionaries and fifth columnists. (Recall that the mopping-up operations conducted against snipers lasted an entire week in the city of Barcelona);
4. They set up recruiting centers in every neighborhood for the Militias, which they armed, financed, supplied and paid (until mid-September) with their own means, and even after May 1937, each neighborhood maintained an intimate and continuous relation with its militiamen on the front, and welcomed them when they came home on leave;
5. They stored arms in the headquarters of the defense committee, which also played the role of a local store or warehouse, in which the provisions committee of the district was also housed, which supplied the neighborhood with food that was requisitioned in the rural areas by means of armed coercion, exchange, or purchase with vouchers;
6. Imposition and collection of the revolutionary tax in every neighborhood or locality.
The revolutionary committees performed an important and quite multifarious administrative role, which extended from the issuance of vouchers, food coupons, and travel passes, marriage ceremonies, supply and administration of hospitals, to the confiscation of food, furniture and buildings, financing rationalist schools and cultural centers managed by the Libertarian Youth, paying the militiamen or their families, etc.
The District Revolutionary Committees were coordinated from the headquarters of the Regional Committee, to which the secretaries of every neighborhood defense committee reported. There was also a permanent Confederal Defense Committee, located in the CNT-FAI headquarters.
For matters related to the confiscation of large quantities of money and very valuable objects, and all those other tasks involving arrests, information or investigation that, due to their importance, surpassed the jurisdiction or abilities of the neighborhood revolutionary committees, the latter submitted the matters in question to the Investigation Service of the CNT-FAI, under the direction of Escorza at the CNT-FAI headquarters.
ALB—Was there a power vacuum? Were the neighborhood committees formed from the Defense Committees? And what about the provisions committees?
The real power of decision and execution was in the streets; it was the power of the armed proletariat, and the local committees of defense and of workers control exercised this power, spontaneously expropriating factories, workshops, buildings and property; organizing, arming and transporting to the front the groups of volunteer militiamen that they had previously recruited; burning churches or converting them into schools or warehouses; forming patrols to extend the social war; manning the barricades, which were now class frontiers, that controlled traffic and manifested the power of the committees; running the factories, without owners or managers, or converting them for military production; requisitioning cars and trucks, or food for the provisions committee; taking bourgeoisie, fascists and priests “for a ride”; replacing the superannuated republican municipal authorities, imposing in every locality their absolute authority in all domains, without waiting for orders from the Generalitat, or from the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias (the CCMA). The revolutionary situation was characterized by an atomization of power.
On the night of the 19th the only real power was “the federation of the barricades”, and the only immediate objective was the defeat of the rebels. The army and the police, which had either been dissolved or confined to their barracks, disappeared from the streets after July 20. They had been replaced by Popular Militias composed of armed workers, who fraternized with discharged soldiers and Civil Guards who had disposed of their uniforms, in one victorious mass of people, which transformed them into the vanguard of the revolutionary insurrection.
In Barcelona, the defense committees, now transformed into revolutionary neighborhood committees, in the absence of any directives from any organization and without any other coordination than the revolutionary initiatives required by everyday needs, organized the hospitals, overflowing with an avalanche of wounded, set up soup kitchens, requisitioned cars, trucks, weapons, factories and buildings, searched private homes, arrested suspicious persons and created a network of provisioning committees in every neighborhood, which were coordinated in a Central Provisioning Committee in the city, in which the Food Workers Trade Union played an important role. The revolutionary contagion affected all social sectors and all organizations, which sincerely chose to lend their support to the new revolutionary situation. This was the only real power of the CCMA, which appeared to the people in arms as the antifascist institution that must fight the war and impose the new revolutionary order.
On July 21, a Local and Regional Plenum renounced the seizure of power, understood as the dictatorship of the anarchist leaders, rather than as the imposition, coordination and extension of the power that the revolutionary committees were already exercising in the streets. On the 23rd a full Plenum, held in secret, of the superior committees of the CNT and the FIA closed ranks with regard to their decision to collaborate in the CCMA, and to prepare for the Plenum on the 26th to overcome the resistance of the militants.
On the 24th the first two anarchist columns had departed for the front, under the command of Durruti and Ortiz. Durruti delivered a speech over the radio in which he warned of the need to remain vigilant in the face of a possible counterrevolutionary putsch. The revolutionary situation in Barcelona must be consolidated, in order “to go for everything” after taking Zaragoza.
On July 25 Companys went to the Naval Academy and accused the members of the CCMA of having been inefficient with regard to maintaining public order, and was greeted with indifference by García Oliver who menacingly dismissed him.
On the morning of July 26, the Regional Plenum ratified the definitive collaboration of the CNT-FAI in the CCMA, as consented to by the superior committees of the CNT-FAI in their debate on the 23rd and at the previous Regional Plenum held on the 21st.
The Plenum of the 26th unanimously confirmed that the CNT would observe the decision, approved on the 21st, to participate in this new institution of class collaboration called the CCMA. At the same Plenum, on the 26th, a Provisions Committee was created, dependent on the CCMA, to which all the various provisions committees that had arisen at different locations would be subject, and at the same time ordered a partial cessation of the general strike. The summary statement of the principle agreements reached at this Plenum was drafted in the form of a Public Proclamation, so that it should be disseminated and accepted by the population.
The CC for Provisions was a fundamental institution, which ensured an indispensable requirement for those worker-volunteers who had abandoned their ordinary jobs in order to go to fight against fascism in Aragon: so as to assure, in their absence, the feeding of their families who would no longer be able to rely on a weekly paycheck.
ALB—What were the Control Patrols?
On August 11, 1936, the control patrols were created as a revolutionary police force dependent on the Central Committee of the Antifascist Militias (CCMA).
Only about half of the members of the patrols were members of the CNT or the FAI; the others were members of the other organizations that were part of the CCMA: the POUM, the ERC (Esquerra Republicana de Cataluña), and the PSUC, for the most part. Only four of the eleven district delegates were CNT members: those representing Pueblo Nuevo, Sants, San Andrés (Armonía) and Clot; four were from the ERC, three from the PSUC and none from the POUM.
The Control Patrols were under the control of the Investigation Committee of the CCMA, presided over by Aurelio Fernández (FAI) and Salvador González (PSUC), who replaced Vidiella. Its central headquarters was established at 617 Gran Vía, under the direction of two delegates of the Patrols, i.e., José Asens (FAI) and Tomás Fábregas (Acció Catalana). Their pay, ten pesetas per day, was provided by the government of the Generalitat. Although all the district patrols carried out arrests, and some of the detained were interrogated at the old Casa Cambó, the central prison was located at the former convent of the order of St. Clare in San Elías.
ALB—What were the overall achievements of the Central Committee of Antifascist Militias?
On September 26 a government of the Generalitat was formed with the participation of anarchist ministers. On October 1 the dissolution of the CCMA was officially proclaimed.
The decree of October 9, supplemented by the one published on October 12, declared the dissolution of all the local committees that were formed on July 19, and that they would be replaced by the new local government institutions. Despite the resistance offered by many local committees to this order, and despite the delay of several months that preceded the complete establishment of the new local government institutions, this was a deathblow from which they never recovered. The resistance of the CNT militants, who disregarded the directives of their superior committees and the order of the Generalitat, posed a threat to the antifascist pact. The anarchosyndicalist leaders were caught between their militants, who were reluctant to obey them, and the accusation directed at them by the other antifascist forces, who said it was necessary to obey and to enforce compliance with the decrees of the government, and to make the “incontrolados” see the light.
This was the real final balance sheet of the achievements of the CCMA after its nine weeks of existence: the transition from revolutionary local committees, which exercised total power in the streets and the factories, to their dissolution to the exclu sive benefit of the full reestablishment of the power of the Generalitat. Furthermore, the decrees signed on October 24 on the militarization of the Militias as of November 1 and the promulgation of the Collectivization decree completed the disastrous balance sheet of the CCMA, that is, the transition from volunteer revolutionary workers Militias to a bourgeois army of the classical type, subject to the monarchist code of military justice, under the command of the Generalitat; the transition from the expropriations and workers control of the factories to a centralized economy, controlled and administered by the Generalitat.
The delay in implementing the decrees, as a result of the low-profile yet still intransigent resistance of the confederal militants, who were still armed, caused the government of the Generalitat to emphasize as its primary objective the disarming of the rearguard, and it unleashed a propaganda campaign against the so-called “incontrolados”, which dovetailed with the second objective contained in the constantly-repeated slogan: “arms to the front”.
The powerful resistance of the anarchosyndicalist rank and file to the militarization of the militias, the Generalitat’s control over the economy and the collectivized enterprises, the disarmament of the rearguard and the dissolution of the local committees, resulted in a delay of several months in the complete fulfillment of the decrees of the government of the Generalitat with regard to these issues. This resistance would culminate, in the spring of 1937, in major unrest, which was exacerbated by discontent with the progress of the war, inflation, and the shortage of primary necessities, which then crystallized in a general critique on the part of the CNT rank and file militants of the participation of the superior committees of the CNT-FAI in the government, and the antifascist and collaborationist policies of their leaders, whom they accused of forfeiting “the revolutionary conquests of July 19”.
In October of 1936 the decree concerning the militarization of the Popular Militias produced a great deal of unrest among the anarchist militiamen of the Durruti Column, on the Aragon Front. After long and acrimonious debates, in March 1937, several hundred volunteer militiamen, posted in the Gelsa sector, decided to abandon the front and return to the rearguard. An agreement was reached which stipulated that the replacements for the militiamen who were opposed to militarization would arrive over a period of fifteen days. They abandoned the front, bringing their guns with them.
Having arrived in Barcelona, together with other anarchists (defenders of the continuation and intensification of the July revolution, and opponents of the CNT’s collaboration with the government), the militiamen from Gelsa decided to form an anarchist organization that was distinct from the FAI, the CNT and the Libertarian Youth, whose mission would be to bring the libertarian movement back to the revolutionary path. Thus, a new group was formally constituted in March 1937, after a long period of preparation that lasted several months, beginning in October 1936. Its executive committee decided to assume the name, “Friends of Durruti”, which was largely due to the fact that many of its members were former militiamen of the Durruti Column, and as Balius correctly pointed out, it was by no means a reference to Durruti’s political positions, but rather to the popular myth that had grown up around him.
This revolutionary opposition to the militarization of the Popular Militias was also manifested, to one degree or another, in all the confederal columns, but was most pronounced in the Iron Column, which decided on various occasions to “descend on Valencia” in order to drive the revolution forward and confront the counterrevolutionary elements in the rearguard.
In February 1937 an assembly of confederal columns was held that addressed the question of militarization. The threats to withhold arms, food, and reinforcements from the columns that did not comply with the militarization decree, together with the certainty that the militiamen would be integrated into other units that were already militarized, were very effective. For many of the delegates, it seemed that it would be better to accept militarization, and to flexibly adapt to it in each column. Finally, the ideology of antifascist unity and CNT-FAI collaboration in government administration, in defense of the republican State, won out over the resistance to militarization, which was finally accepted even by the recalcitrant Iron Column.
ALB—Did the defense committees clash with the superior committees?
During late November and early December 1936, the CNT debated the role that should be played by the defense committees in Barcelona.
The debates were framed within a strictly trade union-based perspective, which was not at all sympathetic with regard to the important role performed by the defense committees and the provisioning committees at the neighborhood level. It was held that their functions, once the stage of the revolutionary insurrection had come to an end and the next stage had begun, were of an exceptional and provisional character and that in any event they must be assumed now by the trade unions.
In November/December 1936, the defense committees were a thorn in the side of the governmentalist policies of the CNT superior committees; therefore, the latter proclaimed that the defense committees must accept a subordinate role and submit to the authority of the trade unions, as mere armed, but somewhat annoying and superfluous, appendages of the latter.
The debates were focused on the degree of autonomy to be enjoyed by the neighborhood defense committees with respect to the trade unions. Proposals spanned the spectrum from allowing the Local Defense Committees to be totally independent and to be completely separate entities, recognizing them as THE MILITIA OF THE CNT, to their full and absolute subordination to the dictates of the Local Federation of Trade Unions, which were not only to debate relevant issues and decide what action should be taken, but would also have custodianship over arms, and jurisdiction over the members and finances of the Defense Committees.
The fundamental issue, according to the Regional Committee, was the generalized refusal to obey the disarmament orders: “the neighborhoods are our own worst enemies”. In October 1936, the entry of the CNT into the government of the Generalitat led to the creation of a Committee for Internal Security, which resulted in a situation of dual power of command over the forces of public order, between the CNT and the government of the Generalitat. The Control Patrols were losing their autonomy and their decision making capabilities, while the Commissariat of Public Order, controlled by the PSUC and the ERC, was increasing its coercive powers, recommissioning the units of the Assault Guards and the Republican National Guards (the former Civil Guards). At the end of January 1937 the militiamen of the PSUC-UGT abandoned the Control Patrols, and were replaced by elements from the CNT, the ERC and the POUM. The final elimination of the Control Patrols, which would be absorbed into a new, unified Security Corps by the decree of March 4, 1937, implied the CNT’s loss of hegemony in the police functions and repressive tasks of the rearguard.
In the fragile political and armed equilibrium that prevailed in the spring of 1937 in the Barcelona rearguard, the growth of and increasing threat posed by the repressive forces of the bourgeoisie, which were tending to monopolize the means of violence, gave a new impetus to the reorganization and preparedness of the neighborhood defense committees for a confrontation that now appeared to be inevitable.
ALB—Why did the committees lose control over provisioning? What was the “war for bread”?
On December 20, 1936, Joan Comorera (PSUC), the Minister of Provisions, delivered an important speech, in Catalan, at the Gran Price ballroom in Barcelona.
Comorera argued in favor of a strong government, with full powers, capable of enforcing decrees that would no longer be just so many scraps of paper, as was the case under the first government of Tarradellas, in which Nin represented the POUM. He called for a strong government, capable of carrying out an efficient military policy that would centralize all forces at the front.
Comorera blamed the defense committees for the shortages and high prices of food, rather than the hoarding and speculation of the shopkeepers. His speech justified and served as an explanation for the slogan that had appeared on placards and posters in women’s demonstrations that took place in late 1936 and early 1937— “more bread and fewer committees”—demonstrations that were promoted and manipulated by the PSUC. It was clear that there would be a confrontation between the two opposed provisions policies, that of the PSUC and that of the Food Workers Trade Union of the CNT. The Food Workers Trade Union, through the thirteen provisions warehouses in the various districts of the city that were under the control of the revolutionary neighborhood committees (or, more accurately, of the district defense committees), delivered free food to the people’s kitchens, which fed the unemployed and their families, and also served the needs of the refugees who, in April 1937, already numbered 220,000 in Barcelona. It was a network of provisioning that rivaled the retail shops, which only responded to the law of supply and demand; the revolutionary institutions attempted, above all, to prevent the prices of necessities from rising too high, which rendered many products inaccessible for the workers and, of course, for the unemployed and the refugees. The black market was the biggest business arena for the shopkeepers, who made excellent profits thanks to the hunger of the majority of the population. Comorera’s war for bread waged against the district provisioning committees had no other objective than that of stripping the defense committees of every shred of power, even at the cost of depriving Barcelona of food and other basic necessities.
Comorera ended his speech with an appeal to all the organizations to assume responsibility for the sake of iron unity in the antifascist struggle. In order to understand Comorera’s speech we must note the strategy, formulated by Gerö, of implementing a SELECTIVE policy against the anarchist movement, which consisted in integrating its leaders into the State apparatus, while at the same time carrying out an implacable repression against the revolutionary sectors, that were shamefully referred to as “incontrolados”, gangsters, murderers, agents provocateurs and irresponsible elements; and whom Comorera very clearly identified with the defense committees.
The provisions warehouses of the neighborhood committees determined what, how, what quantities and what price would be charged by the shopkeepers, once the “revolutionary” needs of the neighborhood were satisfied, that is, the needs of the invalids, children, unemployed, peoples’ kitchens, etc. Comorera advocated the elimination of these revolutionary neighborhood committees, which were to be replaced by the free market. He knew, furthermore, that the former implied the latter, and that, unless the defense committees were suppressed, the free market would be a chimera.
The rational, adequate and planned provisioning of Barcelona and Catalonia, would have required the adoption of the proposals made by Joan P. Fábregas, the Minister of the Economy and member of the CNT, between October and December of 1936, in his fruitless battles in the Council of the Generalitat, to secure the monopoly of foreign trade, which were opposed by the other political factions represented on the Council. Meanwhile, on the Paris grain market, ten or twelve private Catalan wholesalers competed with each other, driving the prices of grains every higher. But the monopoly of foreign trade, which was not even a revolutionary measure, but only one that was appropriate for a situation of wartime emergency, violated the philosophy of the free market advocated by Comorera.
There was a connection between the bread lines in Barcelona and the irrational competition of the wholesalers in the Paris grain market. This Barcelona-Paris nexus would have been severed by a monopoly in foreign trade. With Comorera’s free market policy this nexus was consolidated. In addition, the PSUC encouraged the speculation of the shopkeepers, who got rich on the hunger of the workers.
ALB—How and for what purposes did the Defense Committees reorganize?
On Sunday, April 11, at a rally in La Monumental arena, there were many placards demanding the release of Maroto and numerous other antifascist prisoners, most of whom were members of the CNT. Federica Montseny was greeted with boos and catcalls. The shouts in favor of freedom for the prisoners got louder and louder, and were constantly repeated. The superior committees held the Friends of Durruti responsible for this disruption of the rally. Federica, who was very upset, threatened not to hold any more meetings in Barcelona.
Gracia’s Grupo 12 presented a written proposal:
“On Monday, April 12, 1937, a session of the local plenum of the Anarchist Groups of Barcelona was held at the CNT-FAI headquarters, attended also by the confederal Defense groups and the Libertarian Youth.
“The Plenum, in consideration, after ample discussion, of the results of nine months of ministerial policies, and in recognition of the impossibility of winning the armed struggle on the fronts against fascism without subordinating all particular, economic, political and social interests to the supreme goal of the winning the war; and in consideration of the fact that only with the total socialization of industry, trade and agriculture, is the crushing of fascism possible; and whereas every form of government is by its very essence reactionary and therefore contrary to every social revolution; it is resolved:
1. That all the persons who currently occupy positions in the antifascist governmental apparatus must resign;
2. That an antifascist revolutionary Committee should be formed for the coordination of the armed struggle against fascism;
3. Industry, trade and agriculture must be immediately socialized;
4. A producer’s card must be introduced. The general mobilization of all men capable of bearing arms and of working must be implemented for the front and for the rearguard;
5. And finally, to impress upon one and all an unyielding revolutionary discipline, as a guarantee that the interests of the social revolution cannot be flouted with impunity.”
This meeting had escaped the control of the bureaucrats. The Defense Committees of Barcelona, or, which amounts to the same thing, the delegations of the revolutionary neighborhood committees, as well as the Libertarian Youth, participated in this Plenum, and undoubtedly contributed to the radical tone of the resolutions.
The FAI of Barcelona, together with the sections of the revolutionary neighborhood defense committees and the Libertarian Youth, despite the indignation and the hysterical opposition of certain bureaucrats, resolved to put an end to collaborationism, and demanded that the anarchist ministers of the government of the Generalitat must resign and that a revolutionary Committee must be formed to conduct the war against fascism. This was a decisive step towards the revolutionary insurrection that would break out on May 3.
This Plenum also testified to the existence of an ideological divide, not so much between the CNT and the FAI, as between revolutionaries and collaborationists, which indicated the existence of an organizational split within the libertarian movement in Barcelona, which was manifested in the growing opposition and the unbridgeable gap with regard to goals that had opened up between the defense sections of the neighborhood committees and the Libertarian Youth, on the one side, and the superior committees, on the other.
This radicalization was the product of an increasingly unsustainable situation in the streets. On April 14, a women’s demonstration, which on this occasion was not manipulated by the PSUC, departed from La Torrassa for the various markets in Collblanc, Sants and Hostafrancs, to protest against the high price of bread and other food products. The demonstration appealed to the Revolutionary Committee at the Plaza de España to intervene on their behalf, but the Committee told them that the issue was not within its jurisdiction. The demonstrations and protests spread to almost all the markets of the city. On the following days there were disturbances and demonstrations at various markets, although not as intense as the demonstrations of April 14. Some shops and bakeries were plundered. The hungry people of the working class neighborhoods of Barcelona had filled the streets to express their anger and to demand solutions.
ALB—What role did the Defense Committees play in May 1937?
On Monday, May 3, 1937, at about 2:45 p.m., three trucks full of heavily armed Assault Guards stopped in front of the Telephone Company’s main building located on the Plaza de Cataluña. They were under the command of Eusebio Rodríguez Salas, a UGT militant and hardcore Stalinist, who was also an officer in the Commissariat of Public Order. The Telephone Company building had been under the control of the CNT since July 19. The monitoring of telephone communications, surveillance over the borders and the control patrols were the main bones of contention, which had since January provoked various incidents between the republican government of the Generalitat and the confederal masses. It was an inevitable struggle between the republican State apparatus, which claimed absolute authority over all domains in “its jurisdiction”, and the defense of the “conquests” of July 19 by the CNT. Rodríguez Salas attempted to seize control of the Telephone building. The CNT militants on the lower floors, taken by surprise, allowed themselves to be disarmed; but on the upper floors, the militants fought back with determination, thanks to a strategically placed machine gun. The news of the attack spread rapidly. Barricades appeared immediately throughout the city. This must not be understood as a spontaneous reaction of the working class of Barcelona, because the general strike, the armed confrontations with the police and the barricades were the result of the initiative taken by the defense committees, whose directives were rapidly followed thanks to the existence of an enormous degree of generalized discontent, the increasing economic hardships of everyday life caused by the high cost of living, the bread lines and rationing, as well as the tension that divided the revolutionary rank and file of the CNT between collaborationists and revolutionaries. The street battles were directed and executed by the neighborhood defense committees (and only to a lesser extent by certain units of the control patrols). The fact that there were no orders from the superior committees of the CNT, whose members were government ministers in Valencia and Barcelona, or from any other organization, to mobilize and construct barricades throughout the city, does not mean that the barricades were purely spontaneous, but rather that they were the result of the directives issued by the defense committees.
Regardless of the importance of the roles played by certain leaders prior to May, all of them were rapidly left behind and surpassed. The neighborhood committees unleashed and played the leading role in the insurrection of May 3-7 of 1937 in Barcelona. And it is not possible to confuse the neighborhood defense committees with an ambiguous and imprecise “spontaneity of the masses”, as is maintained by mainstream historiography.
This is how Nin, the political secretary of the POUM, described the May Days on May 19, 1937:
“The May Days in Barcelona brought about a revival of certain institutions which, during the last few months, have played a certain role in the Catalan capital and in other important municipalities: the Defense Committees. These are institutions of a primarily technical-military type, formed by the trade unions of the CNT. It was these institutions that really led the struggle, and which constituted, in each neighborhood, the center of attraction and organization of the revolutionary workers.”
The Friends of Durruti did not start the insurrection, but its members were the most active combatants on the barricades, and distributed a leaflet demanding the replacement of the Government of the Generalitat by a Revolutionary Committee. The confederal workers, disoriented by the appeals of their leaders—the same ones they had on July 19!—chose, in the end, to give up the struggle, although at first they had laughed at the calls of the CNT leadership for peace and for the end of the fighting, in the interests of antifascist unity.
ALB—How were the Defense Committees dissolved?
The military power of the defense committees in the city of Barcelona was still intact, despite the fact that the May Events were a terrible political defeat for the revolutionaries, which would become evident on June 16, 1937 with the arrest of the Executive Committee of the POUM and the banning of that party.
From that time on, a selective repression was also directed against the CNT, and a judicial offensive was opened up on several fronts:
1. Against the local revolutionary committees created on July 19 and 20;
2. Against all those who had participated in the rebellion of May 1937;
3. Against thought crimes, reading the clandestine press, defeatism or bearing arms without authorization;
4. Against certain well known officials of the CNT, such as Aurelio Fernández, Barriobero, Eroles, Devesa, etc.
At the end of May 1937, however, the defense committees were still strong enough to organize some armed units under the direction of the district defense committees.
The revolutionary neighborhood committees in Barcelona that had arisen on July 19-20 survived until at least June 7, when the recently-restored forces of public order of the Generalitat dissolved and occupied the various headquarters of the Control Patrols, and also some of the headquarters of the defense committees, such as that of the neighborhood of Les Corts. Despite the decree ordering the disbanding of all armed groups, most resisted until September 1937, when they were systematically dissolved and the buildings they occupied were attacked, one by one. The last building occupied by a defense committee, and the strongest and most important, was the headquarters of the Central defense committee, located at the former monastery of St. Anthony, which was attacked on September 21, 1937 by the forces of public order, which utilized an entire arsenal of machine guns, tanks and hand grenades. The monastery’s defenders did not yield, however, to force of arms, but to the evacuation order delivered by the Regional Committee.
From then on, the defense committees disguised themselves under the name of CNT coordination and information Sections, devoted exclusively to clandestine investigative and informational tasks, of the kind that was carried out prior to July 19; but now (1938) they had to operate in a distinctly counterrevolutionary situation.
They were still combative enough and strong enough, however, to publish a clandestine bulletin, Alerta!, seven issues of which were distributed between October and December 1937. The first issue was published on October 23, 1937. The constant preoccupations of this bulletin were: solidarity with “revolutionary prisoners”, demanding their release and denouncing the administration of and abuses that took place at the Modelo prison; the critique of the collaborationism and politicization of the FAI; and the denunciation of the disastrous military policies of the Negrín-Prieto government and the Stalinist domination of the army and the State. It expressed its support for the Libertarian Youth and the Friends of Durruti. An unforgettable characteristic of the publication were its constant calls to “revolution” and the demand that all the members of the superior committees must resign their government positions: “The Revolution cannot be carried out FROM WITHIN THE STATE, but only AGAINST THE STATE”. Its last issue, dated December 4, 1937, denounced the Stalinist Chekas and the brutal persecution of the CNT members in Cerdaña.
In 1938, the revolutionaries were either dead, in jail or living in conditions of absolute secrecy. It was not Franco’s dictatorship, but Negrín’s republic that put an end to the Revolution.
Translated from the Spanish original in January 2013. Interview was conducted in July 2011.
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David Solnit takes a moment to reflect on the fourteen year anniversary of the collapse of the WTO meetings in Seattle, Wa as talks in Bali end in an impasse. David and his sister Rebecca are authors of The Battle of the Story of the Battle of Seattle, published by AK Press. Follow the link to the write up and commentary with Paul deArmond at Popular Resistance.
About Undoing Border Imperialism:
Undoing Border Imperialism combines academic discourse, lived experiences of displacement, and movement-based practices into an exciting new book. By reformulating immigrant rights movements within a transnational analysis of capitalism, labor exploitation, settler colonialism, state building, and racialized empire, it provides the alternative conceptual frameworks of border imperialism and decolonization. Drawing on the author’s experiences in No One Is Illegal, this work offers relevant insights for all social movement organizers on effective strategies to overcome the barriers and borders within movements in order to cultivate fierce, loving, and sustainable communities of resistance striving toward liberation. The author grounds the book in collective vision, with short contributions from over twenty organizers and writers from across North America.
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It’s that time again! We’ve picked a few AK Press titles to mark down to 50% off just for this month. And we’ve picked some good stuff, if we do say so ourselves… if you’re the holiday shopping sort, you might want to take this opportunity while you can!
Here’s what’s on sale for the month of November:
You Can’t Win
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Since Predator Came: Notes from the Struggle for American Indian Liberation
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Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires 1890–1910
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We, the Anarchists! A Study Of The Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) 1927–1937
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Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures, 1960s to Now
Ed. Dara Greenwald & Josh MacPhee
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About One Game at a Time:
Sports are serious stuff. Football, basketball, tennis, mixed martial arts, and beyond: these are arenas of immense power, with mass appeal, yet far too many of us have abandoned the sporting world as a legitimate site of contestation and innovation. Why? What do we gain by handing over the power of sports to the world of hyper-consumption, militarism, violence, sexism, and homophobia—the worst elements of our culture? As Matt Hern suggests, not a whole lot.
On the basis of his forty-plus years of sports fanaticism, Hern makes an impassioned and entertaining plea for a more active engagement with sports, both physically and intellectually. His eye is critical, and his analysis is sharp, but this book is more than a critique—it’s a celebration of what sports have taught us, and a map of how much more we still have to learn. Matt Hern is a former sportswriter and a radical urbanist whose writing has been published on six continents.
Fun, engaging, and fast-paced, One Game at a Time is for anyone willing to get their head into the game.
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With a new month comes new deals!
Each month we like to pick a few of our AK Press titles to feature, and when we do, we mark them down to half price all month! Of course we think they’re all awesome books (that’s why we published them to begin with). And they’re even more awesome when you can get them for 50% off. Eh? Eh?
Haymarket Scrapbook: 25th Anniversary Edition
Edited by Franklin Rosemont & David Roediger
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Durruti in the Spanish Revolution
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Why did you decide to edit this book, and how do you feel it is contributing to the conversation and work around sexual violence?
Lisa Factora-Borchers: When I first worked as a legal and medical advocate for survivors of sexual violence, I often wished I had something to give them that very first night I met them after their assault. The packet they went home with was usually a plain folder filled with various tip sheets and hotline numbers. And when I walked them out of the hospital, I watched some of them collapse into a family member’s arms or I’d watch them step into a cab to take them home. It wasn’t those images that haunted me, but the feeling of aloneness they carried. I wanted to give them something more than that folder. That was the beginning of a very long road to begin an anthology for survivors.
I feel the conversation around sexual violence, particularly in the media, does very little for survivors themselves. Books about prevention are either written by academics or feminist authors about sexual prowess and empowerment. These can be powerful tools for deconstructing theories and strategies, but that doesn’t help the survivor in that very moment who holding the trauma in her body, reliving the violence because of the isolating nature of survivorhood. This anthology is multipurposed. It is first and foremost for survivors to know they are not alone. And it is also a tool for the communities survivors live in. Some of the pieces in the anthology lay down possibilities for helping survivors heal and also to address sexual violence at its core: in our own families, peer groups, professional settings, and neighborhoods. All of this is told by the survivors themselves. Who better to centralize in a discussion about sexual violence than the ones who have survived it?
Who are you trying to speak to with this collection? What does this book do differently than other books on the topic of sexual assault and abuse?
L: I’m speaking to the survivors of sexual violence and anyone who lives in community with them. (That means everyone.) Anthologies, in the literary world, are supposed to offer a compelling argument about a specific issue. Dear Sister makes a compelling argument by harmonizing different voices about justice, sexuality, and healing. It gives varying and different accounts of how one goes about their survival. There is no one path that works for everyone. This anthology highlights that diversity and speaks to the unpatterned and complex nature of everyday healing. It offers other survivors touchstones as they go through their own healing process. The survivors reflect upon the roles reproductive justice, immigration, healthcare, art, sexuality, poverty, race, and feminism have played in their lives as survivors. They give literary arms to other survivors.
The tagline of the book is “Surviving is testament to someone’s strength. Healing is testament to the community surrounding her.” I feel this perfectly sums up the duality of the book; an uplifting of the wisdom and bravery of survivors and the responsibilities of the communities in her healing process.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting together a book like this? What was the most rewarding?
L: The most challenging aspect was organizing over fifty contributors and editing a piece of literature that centralized on the most painful and unresolved part of their entire life. The anthology was completely organic in its inception. I learned a lot in this process because I never did anything like this before and there was no blueprint. I’d never seen anything like what I wanted to create and believing in something that was taking so long to finish was emotionally grueling. It tested every muscle of endurance.
Also absorbing all the stories - from the call from submission through the three years of editing the ones that ended up in the manuscript - took its toll on me as a human listener/reader. Though it is a book about hope, you can’t have hope without a nod to despair, and the weight of that despair could be crushing at times. I had to learn how to be an advocate again. To be balanced, to practice self-care. The last thing the world needs is another burned out person who meant well.
The most rewarding aspect of the process, by far, is when people contact me and write the book has helped them in their healing. When some of the contributors shared with me that writing their letter helped them talk to their mother again, or how putting their healing into words solidified a personal truth for them, there are no words to describe my joy. It is beyond rewarding. It is purpose.
What do you want readers to take away from this book? What are the essential lessons and narratives?
L: I want readers to take away a piece, no matter how small, that helps them understand the human condition. And the human condition is that we are not meant to be in isolation. Not in celebration, not in suffering, not in healing. We are meant to build and grow in communities and relationship with others. We are meant to learn how to love and converse with one another across differences, riches and struggles. To have each survivor close the book feeling a little bit lighter and less alone, to have the public consider how legislation, public policies, and social services impact survivors of sexual violence, to have family members and friends learn how rhetoric, love, and gentleness are radical tools for justice – this would be a great beginning for readers.
Benjamin Franks, author of Rebel Alliances, has generously scanned issues of The Class War Federation’s theoretical journal The Heavy Stuff for anarcho-posterity. The journal lasted for five issues between 1987 and 1992. According to Ben, “There was also a ‘special edition’ of The Heavy Stuff…a pamphlet by Dave Douglass, ‘Coal Communities in conflict.’ It was written for Heavy Stuff No. 6, but I’m not sure if No. 6 ever came out. Class War also later went on to produce another magazine with a theoretical bent: A Touch of Class.”
I’ve uploaded pdfs of the scans for anyone who’s interested. Enjoy!
AK Press author Jared Davidson (Sewing Freedom, 2013) has written a new article on little-known anarchist Johann Sebastian Trunk (1850–1933). As an anarchist historian with a focus on New Zealand, Davidson is used to following tough leads. Chasing a clue from a footnote, he was able to piece together a fascinating profile of Trunk, the Bavarian-born anarchist, who edited Freiheit (alongside Johann Most), shared a platform with Louise Michel, Peter Kropotkin, and Errico Malatesta, and later settled in New Zealand.