Friday, 6 August 2010

Anarchists, self marginalisation, and the fightback against the cuts

The United Campaign against police violence asked me to sign a letter to the Guardian last week about Ian Tomlinson.I  did. The letter was published and amongst the other signatories was Martin Smith of the SWP. ‘I  bet you wouldn’t have signed it if you’d known Smith was signing it’ chortled a comrade. Well… yes I  would…….signing the letter does not make me complicit in the massacre of Kronstadt as some people would have it. The newly formed COALITION AGAINST THE CUTS ( see 76 signatories of the usual suspects in Wednesday’s Guardian) is  holding a  one day conference in London in November. We should go. Too often we marginalise ourselves by refusing to take part in such events. When we put our case many people agree with us. For example I  can reveal that one of the signatories to the Coalition Against the Cuts letter is coming to Birmingham in October with the Class War mob because once put to him he found our prposals for the day – beer, trouble, beer, curry – far more attractive than going along with the confected ‘rage’ of the SWP. This autumn a whole series of strikes, demos, actions will be taking place – we need to be in there with the punters not outside looking in and whining about workers councils.Take another example – the desire to set up anarchist social centres everywhere when there’s perfectly serviceable pubs and clubs all over acting as social centres. You do of course have to mingle with non-anarchists – thank the fucking lord! Onwards to Brum and a hot autumn – of the class comrades not separate from the class.
I don't neccesarily agree with every point made above.

For example, I can see the point of social centres apart from pubs and clubs. As Matt Moore wrote in Nerve when the Next to Nowhere social centre opened in Liverpool, "a social centre is no panacea - it solves no problems, it makes no contribution in and of itself."

However, "what it can do though is help create the networks of support that people need to defend themselves and those around them from the depredations of government and business. Whether it's a free meeting space for a community group, e-mail access, or just a cup of tea somewhere friendly after a crappy day, a social centre can be an important resource in encouraging people to act for themselves, both by providing an example of cooperation in action and by providing resources to those taking action."

I would add that, at least in Liverpool, this social centre is no anarchist ghetto. It is open to the general public, and people from a broad variety of political persuasions congregate there. This occasionally leads to trouble from local boneheads, but overall works well. 

However, more broadly, I have often found myself making the same point as Ian.

For example, see "On purple protests and revolutionary ghettoes," where I argued that those who take part in "reformist"movements should not be dismissed out of hand;
One of the problems with political activism is that those involved quickly find themselves running in familiar circles. People getting involved in one particular cause may know each other from another. This allows people to build strong bonds of comradeship, trust and cooperation being vital to effective organising. But it also builds up an in-group which those new to activism may find daunting. Especially if they're just beginning to explore and develop their own social/political consciousness.

Events such as the Purple Protest, though flawed in a number of ways, offer them a way in. It may be easy to sneer at them from the revolutionary ghetto, to feel superior because they're promoting the "wrong" approach, but it doesn't actually accomplish anything.

Yes, electoralism is a dead-end road which draws time and energy away from more constructive actions, but you can't convince people of that by deriding them. You need to attend these events, to talk to people, and to spark up the dialogue about precisely this issue. Of course, there will be people who can't be convinced. You're not likely to make everyone throw down their purple banners and pick up a black-and-red flag. But those who have never done anything political before, who have no idea where to find an outlet for their ideas, may just be grateful.
In "On participation in the mainstream trade unions," I made a similar point in regards to the trade union movement;
There are, as stated, perfectly valid critiques of reformist trade unionism that can, and must, be made. But simply going on the attack – especially from the perspective informed entirely on theory rather than practice – is only going to make people think (probably rightly) that you’re not worth bothering with. Likewise, asking them all to simply detach from their respective unions isn’t likely going to win many people over. So what do we do?

The important point is that, if you believe in something strongly enough, you should lead by example. Workers are more likely to be convinced of the merits of anarcho-syndicalism by seeing the results it can achieve rather than by reading a theoretical tract. Organising is vital, and if sustained action and recruitment can feed off each other to create a cycle of growth.

But this should not just take place within specifically anarchist organisations. Mainstream trade unions, despite their flaws, have all the apparatus at hand to deal with the majority of day-to-day workers’ issues – disciplinary procedures, heath and safety, sickness / absence, and so forth – as well as a committed core of activists hampered in their potential only by the union leadership. Whilst the ultimate goal must be to get such people engaged in anarchist struggles, popular mobilisation is still possible within the union structures as well. As the postal worker cited at the beginning of this article notes, “it should be borne in mind that the national strikes of 2007 and 2009 were forced onto the CWU leadership by countless small, local disputes.” Pressure from ordinary workers can force the hand of those in power – indeed, that is the very premise of the anarchist class struggle!
This needn't mean sell-out or compromising of principles. However, it can mean getting our perspective out to a wider audience and getting more people on board with our way of thinking.

To take Ian's example - can anarchists really afford to simply dismiss the Coalition of Resistance? Whilst it may have its problems, amongst them being a platform for the self-promotion of various left and labour "leaders," it appears to be gathering support more generally from people worried about the effects of the government's attacks on the working class.

We can, and should, make the argument for direct action, for mass mobilisation directed from the ground up, and against the illusion that any political party or revolutionary leadership can represent our interests. But we need to do this constructively.

What was - and is - an appealing argument to a great many people is too easily lost in scorn, derision, and insults. The anarcho-nutters heckling from the sidelines invariably get nowhere.

We cannot waste this opportunity. Especially as businesses are now recommending "banning strike action of those involved in the delivery of essential services," the case for militancy and direct action is more urgent than ever.
There is a rich and fertile ground between total sell-out and the purity of the revolutionary ghetto. It's time we started organising there.