The Anarchist Federation, one of the main anarchist organisations in Britain, has just been through a major split. Members in Leicester and London, including a number of founder members, have left the organisation following the tumult over “transphobia” at October’s Anarchist Bookfair.
If we were right in our assessment of the AF as an internationalist anarchist group, this is a significant event which attests to growing difficulties across the entire spectrum of groups who are seeking to develop an authentic revolutionary opposition to capitalism – not only among anarchists but also within the communist left. We think that it is essential to understand the roots of these difficulties if we are to face up to the challenge they pose, and it is in this spirit that we aim to critically analyse the statement issued by those who have decided to leave the AF.
The attempt to break with “identity politics”
The statement of the seceders begins thus:
“It has been over a month since the London Anarchist Bookfair and as a movement we are still reeling, with deep divisions between people who had respect for each other and once worked well together. We are still shocked, horrified and saddened by events as are most people, no matter what perspective or interpretation they have on what happened and the role of the Bookfair collective.
We were, until recently, members of the AF who did not sign the initial statement that was issued by Edinburgh AF and signed by two other AF groups, nor did we support the statement issued by other campaigns and organisations. We did not want to respond immediately as there are so many issues involved and emotions are strong. We hoped that after some time we could give a political assessment of the situation rather than just a knee-jerk reaction based on our emotional response to events and statements from other groups”
The former members have reconstituted themselves into London Anarchist Communists and Leicester Anarchist Communists.
It’s not possible here to deal in any detail with the events at the Bookfair, which caused such ructions across the anarchist milieu and even reached the national press. In essence it involved a clash between a group of feminists who intervened at the Bookfair with a leaflet arguing that new government legislation on “transgender rights” could be seen as an infringement on women’s rights to organize separately, since it would allow transgender males into spaces reserved by or for women. The leaflet provoked a lot of anger from “trans” rights supporters, who saw it as an expression of transphobia by what they call the Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists or TERFS, and one of the women supporting the leafleters, a well-known activist who was involved in the MacLibel case and has been targeted in a particularly vicious way by the undercover police, was subject to mobbing and accused of being a fascist. The Bookfair Collective, which attempted to intervene in the situation to calm it down, subsequently issued a statement saying that this would be its last Bookfair – it has experienced similar clashes in a number of other Bookfairs and its patience has run out.
These events are not unconnected to other scandals centred on the question of morality and behavior which have rocked the anarchist movement in the last few years, the most notable of which are “Aufhebengate” and the “Schmidt affair”, both of which raise the problem of the role played in the anarchist milieu by individuals with a dubious relationship with the police (in the first case) and with out-and-out racists in the second. We have also seen a substantial part of this milieu plunging into support for “national liberation” in the shape of the “Rojava revolution”, armed enclaves in Syria controlled by the Kurdish nationalists of the PKK and based on a semi-anarchist ideology of “democratic confederalism”, and an extremely widespread support for anti-fascism which was highlighted by the incidents around Charlottesville in the USA.
These developments are not taking place in a vacuum. The tendency, within anarchism, to abandon class politics and look for solutions in various forms of identity politics – whether based on gender, race, or nation – while not new, are certainly being exacerbated by the characteristics of the current historic period, in which capitalism is sinking towards barbarism while the working class, weakened by all the divisions engendered by this decomposing society, has found it extremely difficult to resist as a class and above all to rediscover its own perspective for the future of humanity. In a situation where the working class is tending to lose its sense of itself as a distinct social force, it is not surprising that the problem of class identity is being obscured by a fixation on other, more specific identities – a fixation which, while linked to genuine oppressions, tend to obscure the central problem of exploitation and the capitalist social relation.
The statement issued by the seceding groups is highly critical of the mobbing witnessed at the Bookfair. And while it affirms the importance of fighting against all particular forms of oppression, including transphobia, it also contains a questioning of the identity-based politics which it feels has become increasingly dominant within the AF, and a strong desire to return to “class struggle anarchism”. The question of internationalism is also directly posed by this split, because, although the AF published a fairly clear statement on the “Rojava revolution” some time ago, some of the comrades who left the organisation also consider that pro-PKK positions have also been increasingly influential within the organisation.
These aspects of the statement are expressions of a proletarian reaction to the engulfing of the AF in the mire of identity politics and a drift towards support for radical forms of nationalism. They confirm what we wrote in our two-part article on internationalist anarchism in the UK, where we argued that for all its concessions to leftist campaigns, the AF was in the tradition of internationalist anarchism – of those currents in the anarchist movement which have stood against any participation in imperialist war. The revival of the term “anarchist communism” (the AF had originally been called the Anarchist Communist Federation) is symbolic of this will to recover the healthiest parts of its tradition, which they feel can no longer be done within the AF.
And yet: the very fact that these criticisms of identity politics are carried out in the historic framework of anarchism means that they don’t – and cannot – go far enough.
Anarchist obstacles to theoretical advance
What is the evidence for this claim?
- The statement begins by admitting how difficult it has proved to overcome all the divisions within the working class and to build a revolutionary movement committed to the overthrow of capitalism. But it gives little sign of trying to situate these difficulties in the overall context of the present period – a period, as we have noted, marked by a loss of class identity and a low level of class struggle. It’s true that prior to the split the Leicester group of the AF had held a meeting in Leicester and one at the Anarchist Bookfair, as well as writing an article that started a thread on libcom, under the heading ‘Is the working class movement dead?’, which posed serious questions about the problems facing the working class and revolutionaries. There is a recognition in the article that the class struggle has been weakening over a long period but the approach to the problem in the presentation to the meetings is essentially an empirical one which is unable to place it in the global, historic context of capitalism’s terminal phase of decline.
- Although it affirms the central role of the class struggle, the statement does not pose the fundamental theoretical issue: the nature of the working class as a historic, revolutionary class, or as Marx famously put it in 1843: “a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it; which can invoke no historical, but only human, title; which does not stand in any one-sided antithesis to the consequences but in all-round antithesis to the premises of German statehood; a sphere, finally, which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from all other spheres of society and thereby emancipating all other spheres of society, which, in a word, is the complete loss of man and hence can win itself only through the complete re-winning of man. This dissolution of society as a particular estate is the proletariat”. (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)
It is this conception which enables us to understand why the struggle of the proletariat contains, in potential, the solution to all the particular oppressions spawned by capitalist society. But this conception of the proletariat is, of course, the one developed by Marx and the marxist movement, which affirms that the class struggle is not restricted to the economic sphere but has numerous dimensions: social, political, moral, intellectual. It was this understanding which enabled Lenin, that bugbear of the anarchists, to develop a critique of the Economist vision which limits the class movement to something that takes place in the factories and essentially on a day to day basis. And in many ways this is precisely the conception of the main currents in anarchism – most notable the anarcho-syndicalists, but also of those who produced the statement, for whom a class struggle orientation seems to boil down to “getting involved” in the workplace and the local community, which is presented almost as a panacea: “our answer to the first issue” – the reluctance of working people to get involved in revolutionary politics – “is that we need to make sure as anarchists we are directly involved in struggle, in the workplace and the community”. The issue for us here is not whether revolutionaries should engage with struggles in the workplace or the neighbourhood, but the content of that engagement – its methods and objectives, which are nowhere posed in the seceding statement. Otherwise comrades risk burning themselves out in non-stop activism whose real content is essentially a trade unionist one. This is evident in the case of the anarcho-syndicalists whose “organising” role is linked to a project of building a “revolutionary union”. But even those who appear to be more critical of trade unionism can be led back to union-building through a simple focus on day-to-day workplace organising. It was pointed out on the libcom thread about the AF split that some of those who left the AF had previously joined the IWW, which is not entirely consistent with the AF’s position on anarcho-syndicalism, while some of the campaigns of the more “autonomist” Angry Workers of the World group in West London seem to be heading towards calls to build new IWW or “independent union” branches.
- This restricted view of the class struggle does not offer any real alternative to the ideas of “idpol”, for whom being working class is another particular oppression, another separate identity with its own rights to defend. The statement’s critique of identity politics and the kind of mobbing witnessed at the Bookfair makes some valid points – in particular by recognising that fighting against oppressive and divisive ideologies is one that takes place inside the working class, and that those proletarians who are weighed down by various kinds of prejudices need to be won over in the course of the class struggle, not treated as enemies. And yet the ABC of identity politics is not questioned: “We support oppressed groups to organise autonomously”, without any discussion about whether such forms of organising – by gender, sexual orientation, race – tend to become inter-classist by definition and create obstacles to a wider class unity. The statement mentions that it disagrees with the statements put out by Edinburgh and two other AF groups, but it doesn’t mention the fact that one of these groups was the “Trans Action Faction” within the AF, and no criticism is made of the organisational model adopted by the AF, which presents itself as a myriad not only of local groups but of groups organised around sexual and other identities. Again on the organisational question, while it’s recognised in the statement that a lot of people entered the AF without really agreeing with its Aims and Principles, the new group goes no further than reprinting the original document and doesn’t appear to have an answer to the pertinent question posed by a member of the SPGB on the libcom thread: “Just out of interest how was it that people whose politics are closer to liberal idpol than anarchist-communism came to be the majority in the AF anyhow? Isn’t there any kind of screening process for new members?. In other words, is there not a need to examine the ‘entry requirements’ of a genuine revolutionary organisation?”
Does any of this mean that all the problems posed by the different forms of oppression and division reinforced by capitalist society have been solved by the marxist movement? Not at all: even when we are talking about authentic marxism and not its Stalinist or leftist caricature, its various currents have not been immune from workerist ideologies, reductionist visions of class, and even overtly “patriarchal attitudes”. But we are convinced that it’s only the marxist, historical method that will enable us to understand the origins of different forms of oppression and the way to oppose and overcome them, which can only mean starting from a lucid class standpoint that states openly that identity politics are a dead-end.
For us, the underlying problem is that, historically speaking, anarchism itself stems from deep confusions about class: the Proudhonist tendency classically expressed a reaction by the artisan to being dissolved into the proletariat; the Bakuninist current tried to respond to the development of the proletariat with a more collectivist approach but without jettisoning the attachment to the centrality of “liberty” versus “authority; the anarcho-syndicalists, while being a healthy response to the parliamentary cretinism overcoming social democracy at the beginning of the 20th century, fell into the workerist view of the class struggle we mentioned above, evading or even rejecting the political dimension of the class movement. This means that simply returning to these historic roots will not provide the basis for a real clarification and a genuine advance.
There is also an inherent tendency within anarchism towards what many anarchists themselves describe as “the Big Tent” – a kind of family conception in which almost everyone who pins the “anarcho-“ or “libertarian” label on their jacket is welcome through the door. This is typified by the Anarchist Bookfair which has always had the vaguest and most inconsistent criteria for participation, but in a narrower sense the same criticism can be made of the AF, which reveals itself to be a marsh inhabited by different and often antagonistic species.
Anarchists have often taken offense at our use of terms the marsh or the swamp to describe the milieu they inhabit, but we see it as a necessary characterisation of a real political terrain in this society – the middle-ground between the two major classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, made up not only of direct expressions of the intermediate layers (urban petty bourgeoisie, peasantry etc) but also, on the one hand, of degenerating proletarian currents heading towards the ground of bourgeois, leftist politics, and on the other hand, of groups and individuals that are seeking seriously to reach the proletarian shore. A place of transition, but not a place to get bogged down.
In our series on the communist left and internationalist anarchism, we insisted on the need for fraternal discussion between our tendency and those anarchists who indeed express a proletarian vision even if, to our mind, they have not yet left the old swamp behind entirely. Regarding the split in the AF, for all our criticisms, we remain open to further debate, not only with those who left but also with those who chose to stay in the AF. For us, political criticism is not in contradiction with fraternal discussion, and should not be confused with sectarianism. Amos 1.2.18
. See our statement on “Aufhenebgate”: http://en.internationalism.org/icconline/201305/7746/aufhebengate; on the “Schmidt affair”: https://libcom.org/forums/general/ak-press-says-michael-schmidt-fascist-25092015
We should also mention that there has also been a split in the main international organization of the anarcho-syndicalists, the International Workers’ Association, which appears to centre round its most numerous section, the CNT in Spain. See for example https://libcom.org/blog/cnt-iwa-part-2-crisis-iwa-seen-cnt-17122016.
. See https://libcom.org/forums/anarchist-federation/whats-going-afed-27122017, especially p 2 and 3
. See note 1 for references
. https://libcom.org/forums/anarchist-federation/whats-going-afed-27122017?page=6#comment-601412, post 184, Steven. On the AWW’s drift towards syndicalism: “Workplace groups: Currently we work in a major warehouse of a supermarket chain and factories of a major ready-meal producer and try to establish workers groups. Together with the IWW we try to organise independent union structures in ten local companies”. https://libcom.org/blog/migration-national-social-democracy-britain-15012018
. This is why we are also publishing the article ’The dead-end of racial identity politics’ by the US group Workers’ Offensive in this issue (https://www.workersoffensive.org/single-post/2017/10/13/The-Dead-End-of-Racial-Identity-Politics)
. In this regard we note that the new group carries on a practice established for some years now by the Anarchist Bookfair (not to mention numerous other radical websites), in that it publishes a link to the Communist Workers’ Organisation, a left communist organisation whose positions are close to ours, but not to the ICC – just the Bookfair allowed the CWO to hold a stall and meetings while requests from the ICC to do the same were rejected year after year. This attitude is incoherent and a real expression of sectarianism. If anyone in the anarchist world considers that the ICC deserves to be treated like a pariah, let them argue the case, and we will respond with our own arguments.