Anarchist Bookfair 2010: Looking for revolutionary ideas...

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Since the early 1980s and the first Anarchist Bookfair in London, the event has gradually got larger, with bigger venues, more stalls and more meetings. In the early years there was an anarchist hardcore, but, as time has gone on, an increasing variety of meetings has attracted people from all sorts of political backgrounds. It’s true that there are familiar faces who seem to be there every year, but the new faces have not just come along to see the ‘big stars’ – this year John Pilger and Paul Mason were in the line-up – but to seek out ideas that might be alternatives to the political mainstream.

Of course, there is no such thing as a homogenised anarchism. There are many varieties of ideas in anarchism and on its fringes. Some defend internationalist positions, some recognise an important role for the working class, some are anarcho-syndicalists, some are abstract advocates of freedom, and some are not very different from Trotskyists and other forms of leftism that anarchists profess to despise.

Every year the militants of the ICC participate in a number of meetings at the Bookfair. It’s not always obvious which ones will provoke productive discussion, and the imposition of 50 minute limits for many meetings means there’s often little opportunity for discussion to develop. What follows are some of the more positive features of this year’s Anarchist Bookfair.

Among the regular events in recent years have been the meetings of the Radical Anthropology Group. This year they held a meeting on ‘Primitive communism and its contemporary relevance’. For most of the 100,000 or so years human being have been around they have lived neither in groups under a dominant alpha male like most of the great apes, nor in class societies. Human nature is clearly not the unchanging dog-eat-dog affair that characterises so much of life in capitalist society.

Chris Knight’s anthropology studies look at how we evolved, at the human revolution that led to egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies without state or private property. His talk and the discussion that followed raised many important questions about what it means to be human; about the relations between the sexes; and about the relation of theory to discovery in science – in this case Chris Knight’s prediction of the finding of red ochre for body decoration in the earliest human habitations about 100,000 years ago.

These are very interesting and important topics for the revolutionary class that can put an end to class society, some of which we responded to in a review of Knight’s Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture (online at http://en.internationalism.org/2008/10/Chris-Knight ).

In another meeting that involved Chris Knight there was a debate on ideas developed in an article on Chomsky that first appeared in 2002. Noam Chomsky is a contradictory figure. On one hand he calls himself an anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian socialist; on the the other hand his approach to linguistics, and the so-called ‘cognitive revolution’ seems to mean turning his back on the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, turning attention from collective, social activity to individuals and parts of individuals. Chomsky sees language at ‘an individual phenomenon’ in contrast to the earlier view of language as ‘a social phenomenon, a shared property of a community’. If Chomsky’s approach to language lacks a sense of humanity, his politics lack a scientific approach.

The official title of the meeting was “Noam Chomsky: Does the anarchist revolution need science?” This was only partly touched on when peace campaigner Milan Rai answered the question “Do we need a scientifically grounded theory for revolution?” with a firm No. He was not against rational enquiry, or a concern for evidence, logic and consistency – but would take this concern no further.

A militant of the ICC defended the importance of theory and a scientific approach. If it’s productive to have a scientific approach toward everything from galaxies to sub-atomic particles, then an understanding of the underlying principles of capitalism or the potential of the working class surely gains from a commitment to drawing out the most profound theoretical conclusions. Yes, all ideas for the emancipation of humanity will be tested in the laboratory of revolution, but they benefit enormously from a serious attempt to scientifically grasp, for instance, the characteristics of previous struggles.

One of the most interesting groups to have participated in struggles in Greece over the last couple of years is TPTG (some of whose analyses we have published in our press). In a well organised meeting that allowed time for discussion they described events at first hand along with some of the ideas that have emerged. They warned of the glorification of violence, which could be a problem in the long run. They showed how left-wing nationalism presented the debt crisis as a national crisis, a national catastrophe, and how leftist ideology defended nationalisation and self-management while blaming corrupt politicians and calling for economic re-organisation.

It was interesting to contrast the movement of December 2008 with March/April 2010. The strikes and demonstrations this year were all called, organised and determined by the unions without any grass roots initiatives. Union control fragmented and sabotaged the movement.

In the December movement they had mixed feelings about the move from the streets to the occupations and the assemblies. They thought something had been lost. A militant of the ICC intervened to point to what was positive in December with the discussions that took place in the assemblies and occupations. For the TPTG there were positive and negative aspects of the assemblies. They thought that it was necessary to see how discussion developed, but it was important not to glorify the assemblies.

A meeting entitled “Will Cameron’s cuts lead to working class defeat or to a new anti-capitalist movement?” started with some celebrity speakers. Once these were over the discussion evolved in a way that allowed everyone to participate and to address the meeting as a whole, very much assisted by the chairing of the meeting. Few interventions were directed specifically to the presenters, rather speaking to the meeting as a whole.

The ICC spoke to take issue with the idea that the government’s cuts were ‘ideological’ and pointed to the underlying reality of the crisis.

We agreed with a comrade who said that the most important issue for the working class was to take an internationalist position. We said that it was important to take note of the strikes in France, for example. These struggles showed that the working class in Britain did not have to confront the crisis alone. We also noted that the crisis is just as real in China as it is in Europe or the US, so that workers there share the same experience as the working class elsewhere and fight on the same basis.

The Wine and Cheese Appreciation Society gave a talk entitled ‘Freedom: a bourgeois concept or a weapon of criticism?’ The discussion wasn’t helped by people still arriving 30 minutes into a 50 minute discussion, and by the chair inviting people to interrupt or raise questions as they went along. Nonetheless, some interesting points were raised about the concept of ‘freedom’ as one reason why some people look for an alternative perspective.

The general view of the presenter was that ‘freedom’ – of speech, the right to criticise etc - is a concept which is perfectly compatible with the liberal form of capitalism, giving the example that ‘the people’ are actively encouraged to criticise and, as citizens, suggest improvements to the functioning of society. The ICC indicated our general agreement with this – even the fact that there is a place in the capital of Britain where anarchists, communists and those seeking alternatives can meet annually without facing harassment from the state is in itself indicative of the flexibility of the most advanced countries to tolerate certain levels of criticism. The W&CAS have interesting views, and made reference to Capital and arguments used by Marx in their presentation; however there was no mention of the working class as a force within society, or its perspective as the gravedigger of all forms of capitalism. Perhaps it will be possible to raise these points, and others, at future meetings.

 The usually accepted explanations for the current state of society are increasingly undermined by people’s experience of a decomposing, crisis-ridden capitalism. When the dominant ideas fail to convince, discussion of alternative views can be productive. Being convinced of the need for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism does not come overnight; it requires a whole process of open discussion.... wherever it can be found.

Barrow 6/11/10.