- In December last year, some anarchists from Sydney floated a proposal to form a regional anarchist federation in Oceania. In brief, the proposal was made out of a desire to create closer links between anarchists in the region.
The following are some of my own thoughts in response.
Note that a gathering of anarchists interested in discussing the proposal will take place over Easter (Friday March 21–Monday March 24) @ the International Workers’ Club in Northcote, Melbourne. For more details, read the blog.
To begin with, there are some obvious definitional issues. The first is “what is anarchism?” The second is “what is a federation?” And the third is to do with what is meant by ‘Oceania’.
As for the first question, the proposal contains a statement of ‘common politics’. These are contained in five points. Thus according to the proposal’s authors, anarchists:
- 1) Seek to abolish capitalism and class society;
2) Support libertarian forms of organisation;
3) Oppose all forms of oppression;
4) Believe an anarchist society is possible, desirable (and necessary) and;
5) Oppose the state and support internationalist struggle.
Or something like that. (The above is a summation.) The five points are elaborated upon at some length in the proposal, and the following section is a response, both to these further reflections, and the five points which are presented as forming the core of an anarchist politic.
So, in respect of 1): Capitalism is a form of class society — but not the only one, obviously. In which case, it may be simpler to state that anarchists seek to abolish class society. On the other hand, to my mind, the most obvious and first principle of an anarchist politic is opposition to hierarchy; that is, anarchists wish to create anarchy, a society without rulers. In which case 4) would assume the highest priority. That is, in terms of arriving at a definition of ‘anarchism’, anarchists are those who maintain an anarchist society is both possible and desirable (the question of whether or not it is ‘necessary’ is a question of secondary importance in my opinion). From this commitment also flows the other points: opposition to capitalism and all forms of domination and exploitation, whether their bases are economic, racial or sexual. Beyond this, I think it would be worthwhile committing the federation to an explicitly revolutionary political framework.
The roots of anarchist federalism lie in the late nineteenth century, in particular debates within the IWMA (The First International, 1864). Those debates are relevant only insofar as they concerned, in part, the question of the relationship between an organisation and its parts; in this case, the International and its (largely) national branches. One of the central features of this debate was the question of state power and the relationship of workers’ movements towards its conquest. For the anarchists — sometimes also referred to as the autonomists — the ‘economic’ struggle always took precedence over the ‘political’ one. In the end, the differences between the (broadly) Marxist position and that of the (broadly) anarchist position proved too great to be reconciled within the one organisation, and the International dissolved (1872).
In essence, the theory and practice of federation developed in opposition to the theory and practice of political centralisation. That is, federation developed as a means by which such conflicts, in the absence of a central authority, could be best resolved — or perhaps left unresolved — while minimising the effects upon the pursuit of common interests. Instead, decisions made by a federation require the agreement of each of its member parts. By one definition, then, federalism means “free agreement of individuals and organizations upon collective endeavour geared towards a common objective”. In Australia, the last attempt to create such a structure was the Federation of Australian Anarchists, or FAA, established in January 1975.
The FAA lasted several years before collapsing. The reasons for this are many, but it’s notable that the structure of the FAA allowed membership by both groups and individuals (see below).
There are a number of arguments in favour of allowing both existing groups of anarchists and unaffiliated individuals to participate in and to form part of an anarchist ‘federation’. The first and most obvious is that, of the hundreds if not thousands of people who describe themselves as being anarchist (or highly sympathetic to anarchism), the majority are not members of any anarchist group. In which case, excluding individuals from joining and participating in a federation (if not a discussion concerning its merits), is to effectively exclude the majority of (self-described) anarchists from the organisation. To the extent that the purpose of the federation is to overcome the political, social and even geographical isolation of anarchists, this is obviously a problem.
One reason why the inclusion of individuals (as individuals) within the federation is problematic proceeds from an understanding of the distinctive nature of a federation. In general usage, a federation is composed of groups which nominate delegates — authorised representatives of the group’s collectively-determined position(s). Delegates meet with delegates from other groups, and do so with a mandate. That is, with a clearly-defined purpose in meeting and in order to address specific questions. Further, whatever agreements are reached by delegates are not confirmed until such time as groups then proceed to ratify those decisions. That is, delegate agreements require ratification by the groups which comprise the federation. This process is intended to limit the potential for the abuse of authority granted to delegates, and to ensure that ultimate decision-making authority rests with the groups which form the federation’s organisational basis.
In the context of a federation comprised of groups and individuals, such a process is obviously unworkable. Rather, either individuals assume the same authority as groups, or decisions made by the federation as a whole are made as a result of the deliberations of each of the individuals which comprise its membership. In which case, the federation more closely resembles a political party than it does a federation of groups in the anarchist sense of the term.
As it stands, the following groups have expressed some interest in and might possibly comprise the groups from which a federation is drawn: Alarm Youth Anarchist Collective, Black Rose, Jura, Mutiny, Wollongong Autonomous Collective (NSW); Anarchist Direct Action, Barricade, Melbourne Anarchist Club (Victoria). To the best of my knowledge, there are no functioning anarchist groups in the ACT, Northern Territory, South Australia or Tasmania. In Queensland, Bastard, Beating Hearts and/or Black & Green infoshop exist as functioning collective(s), and may (or may not) be interested in the federation, but have yet to formally express any; in Western Australia, the Black Dove collective appears to have dissolved, and I’m unaware of any other functioning groups. (As an aside, the sites of both the Brisbane and Perth Social Forums have lapsed, while those for Melbourne and Sydney remain.) On a geographical basis then, and assuming the federation is a federation of groups, a more appropriate title for it might be the East Coast Anarchist Federation.
The situation in Aotearoa is a little different…
Questions of political accountability are often thorny ones. To whom should one account for one’s actions in any case?
In my experience, but also that of many others, ‘anarchism’ attracts more than its fair share of cranks. That is, individuals for whom ‘anarchism’ functions as a kind of shelter or substitute for therapeutic treatment. This is not a new phenomenon, and its occurrence is closely-related both to the political marginality of anarchism to contemporary Australian politics and social life, and also its strong associations with various (largely antiquated) cultural avant-gardes (eg, punk). In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell famously (and humorously) wrote:
One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England…
We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers…
If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!
Before I’m accused of opposition to drinking fruit juice, nudism, wearing sandals, sex, Quakers, pacifism, feminism or even quackery, I’ll make two points: first, some of my best friends are fruit juice-drinking, naked, sandal-wearing, sex-addicted, pacifistic, feministic Quakers, and I love them all dearly. Secondly, my point is that if anarchists wish to have their ideas examined more seriously by a broader range of people, then the inessential aspects of contemporary anarchist practice — so-called ‘lifestylism’ — should not be allowed to prevent this discussion taking place. In other words, the idea that a commitment to certain fashions or lifestyles is an essential requirement for effective anarchist politics needs to be addressed, and shown, in both theory and practice, to be incorrect. In this context, I’d suggest that one of the ways of doing so is to take the idea that anarchism is or rather can be a genuinely popular movement more seriously. (As an aside, I think at least some of Orwell’s apparent hostility to various forms of social deviance may be related to his being an Old Etonian; but that’s another story.)
In any case, the question of accountability is also a useful one in terms of the requirement to have some idea of goals, and also political — meaning organisational — structure. That is, accountability has at least two dimensions: one may be described in terms of an individual’s relationship to the collective of which she is a member (the micro-political); another is the relationship between the individual, group or project, and the broader movement, one composed of elements with similar if not identical political and organisational perspectives (the macro-political). In the first case, I think it’s possible to establish (more) formal arrangements; in the second, accountability — and the extension of solidarity to others — is a more flexible concept.
- One of the classic texts on this subject is ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ by Jo Freeman (1970). See also Ken Knabb’s thoughts on ‘Consensus, majority rule and unavoidable hierarchies’.
Based on my reading of the online discussions that’ve taken place, including those based on meetings in Sydney and Brisbane, one other concern is the naming of the federation, and the question of political prescription. In other words, whether or not a project of this kind should be explicitly anarchist, and whether or not it should be a requirement of those wishing to participate that they identify themselves and/or the groups to which they belong as anarchist.
My feeling is that the politics of the federation should be designated as being anarchist, and so too the groups of which it is composed. In explaining why I think this, I think it also useful to consider some common objections.
First, such a demand is exclusionary. More than this, it excludes those who share the same politics (at least insofar as these are expressed in some form of minimum definition, whatever its precise contents) but who, for whatever reason, choose either to assign some other label to their political perspective or who eschew, or who claim to eschew, labels altogether. To my mind, this is a problem, but one of most relevance to those committed to such a political perspective, but who at the same time refuse its (otherwise) obvious debt to anarchism.
To put it another way: anyone can assign any meaning they like to the term ‘anarchism’, and many use it in a manner far removed from its actual meaning as employed by self-defined anarchists and anarchist movements, both contemporary and historical. The political purpose of proclaiming anarchism to be composed of x, y and z, in the case of an anarchist federation, is to claim a certain political heritage, in a manner not unlike that which other ‘anarchists’ have been doing for several centuries, and irrespective of its bourgeois distortions (including Marxist-derived impositions). And for those who identify as Marxist, there’s no shortage of groups which they may consider joining.
- Incidentally by way of example of a group assuming an ‘anarchist’ identity, it’s possible to cite the “national anarchists”. Assuming the agreement of such individuals with the draft expression of common politics, it would be unfair to exclude them on the basis of their presumed racism (an accusation which is of course denied by them).
But leaving aside such matters, I think the purpose of having an anarchist federation speaks to a real need on the part of those who already consider themselves as belonging to this historical tradition and who feel a greater affinity to this political philosophy than they do others. As such, and in keeping with the notion of political autonomy, it makes sense, to me at least, for those of us who feel similarly inclined to seek ways and means of working more closely together, and thereby making our politics more effective.
Regarding the relationship between those who consider themselves anarchist and those who do not, I think it’s worth reiterating the fact that, if some kind of anarchist federation does emerge, this by no means precludes the emergence or establishment of other forms of political cooperation, whether these remain purely an ‘anarchist’ affair or comprise a range of different groups, individuals or projects. In other words, I think it would be mistaken to seek a consensus from all those who have an opinion on these and other questions regarding what is to be done. Rather, I think the gathering in Melbourne should be viewed in the same manner as a spokescouncil might: that is, as a forum in which different possibilities for action are presented, and those who feel drawn towards one form of action or another be free to pursue this course.
By way of further conclusion
I wanted to join the Spartacist League. True, we used to laugh at them; in fact everyone laughed at them, but in their isolation lay their appeal. The Spartacist League was this bad-tempered Trotskyist group that had probably no more than twenty — no, make that thirty — members throughout the country mainly based on campuses like LaTrobe and Sydney. We occasionally had run-ins with them, although they tended to keep their distance because they imagined that we were out to kidnap them individually and dump the bodies in shallow graves off Rye backbeach. We wouldn’t have done; there were plenty of leftist groups clamouring for that opportunity.
Since the early 1970s, the Australian left had been more gauche than sinister, despite what groups like People Against Communism said. That was the appeal of the far-right, I guess: groups like the League and the Nazis were either nutty or offensive, both of which amused me no end; or it spoke such unambiguous commonsense (like the British NF or the Alliance) that you couldn’t help but identify with it. Well, at least I couldn’t. Most of the left, on the other hand, was dull and earnest and out of touch. You just had to read the left’s papers or, even better, look at the miserable faces of the people selling them. How they ever recruited was beyond me. I certainly didn’t fancy spending my Saturday afternoons in draughty meeting rooms discussing Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value. If I’d wanted to learn that sort of thing I’d have paid attention in fourth form economics classes.
That was the beauty of the Spartacist League. They had this paper, Australasian Spartacist, and virtually every issue had at least one page devoted to sectarianism. Yes, they were Marxists, and yes, they also ran pages of boring leftist tripe that they no doubt thought had some appeal to the working masses — the very same working masses who would never buy their paper, week after week after week — but they specialised in airing the dirty laundry of all the other rival left groups around: the Maoists, the Eurocommunists of the CPA, the Send In the Tanks Stalinists of the Socialist Party, and all the other cheek-by-jowl rivals to the title of Trotsky’s heirs — the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Socialist Labour League, the Communist League (were they still going?), the International Socialists, etc. etc. No wonder they were generally considered to be police agents.
And they had a great writing style — snotty and sneering and puffed-up. It was pretty much like ours, actually. If you could hear what you read, they’d be saying it from the corners of their mouths, then laughing at you. They insulted other leftitsts worse than we insulted other leftists. They insulted other leftists worse than they insulted us. That was no doubt why they kept getting bashed by other Trotskyists. Technically, though, we were the Great Satan, because we were Fascists with a capital F, and the other left groups were part of the workers’ movement.
The politics would have taken a bit of getting used to, but that certainly wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility. I envied them. They knew what they believed. They knew who they hated, and why, and it was all footnoted and there was never any room for error and they could pick up deviationism from the most innocuous slip of the tongue and they were as hard on their own people as they were on everyone else and by Christ they were hard on everyone else. No one was good enough for them.
The line was laid down, probably in the US, and you’d know pretty much from the start what you could like and dislike and it would all be explained and there’d be references and cross-references in all the back issues of Australasian Spartacist so no one could just make it up as they went along…
~ David Greason, I was a teenage fascist (1994)
See also : Brian Martin, Activists and “difficult people”, Social Anarchism, Number 30, 2001, pp. 27-47. In the meantime, keep on keep on keep on dancin’ all through the night… ¡HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE!
- ORGANISATIONAL PLATFORM
The Federation consists of those groups and individuals in Australia who:
1. are opposed to both capitalism and state socialism,
2. accept the possibility and desirability of libertarian socialism, ie a co-operative and egalitarian social economy without the State,
3. reject the view that the State – ie police, army, parliament and bureaucracy – is the decisive instrument for the achievement of a libertarian social order, and
4. accept the necessity of co-operation, planning and organisation for the achievement of anarchist aims.
1. to struggle against statist, sexist, ageist, and authoritarian conceptions in all spheres of social life,
2. to prepare the theoretical, ideological-cultural, moral, and material-organisational prerequisites for effective and permanent popular self-government in future crises,
3. to propagate the general idea of libertarian socialism,
4. to initiate, assist and participate in practical struggles for partial objectives on the basis of their relationship to libertarian socialist aims and objectives,
5. to foster the development of the world anarchist movement both through building a strong Australian section and through mutual aid and discussion with other national sections.
1. Affinity Groups
The basic units of the organisation are cells or affinity groups composed of either:
1. persons engaged in a common occupation, working in a common institution or having a common status, eg, shop stewards groups, student and teacher groups, women’s groups, etc
2. persons engaged in common specialised work for the movement or having common interests, eg publishing groups, research groups, prisoners aid groups, etc.
3. persons living or working in a common locality.
2. Regional Associations
The cells or affinity groups in a given geographical region should form a regional association for purposes of mutual aid and discussion and for organising general propaganda. In areas where there are not functionally differentiated groups, regional associations should be formed in order to bring anarchists and sympathisers together and in this and other ways facilitate the emergence of affinity groups.
3. National Sub-Sections
Affinity groups may also unite nationally, or regionally on the basis of common occupation, interest, status or program, to form sub-sections of the federation.
4. Corresponding Members
Each group – affinity, regional or national – should designate a member for correspondence with the rest of the movement. If the names and addresses of such corresponding members cannot be published openly they should still be held by the group producing the internal bulletin and also the corresponding member of each regional association or national sub-section within the federation should keep the names and addresses of the corresponding members of its component cells or affinity groups.
5. Individual Members
Although it is desirable that members belong to an affinity group, (or several), they may be attached directly to either a regional association, a national sub-section or the federation itself in the absence of suitable local groups.
6. Any individual member or component group can contact any component group of the Federation either directly or if necessary through the medium of the internal bulletin or system of corresponding members.
7. Any individual member or component group may place articles or statements in the internal bulletin, or – in case of space limitations – have articles or statements distributed together with the internal bulletin.
8. Any component group may call a conference of all federation members, of all anarchists in a particular region, or of all anarchists active in a particular type of affinity group, and have the conference advertised through the internal bulletin or invitations issued through the system of corresponding members.
9. Any affinity group may hold meetings with other affinity groups, or between its delegate and the delegates of other affinity groups and have the invitations issued through the system of corresponding members.
Conferences and Meetings
1. No decision can be made or statements, issued in the name of the federation. All statements and decisions are made in the name of the conference of individuals or meeting of group delegates making them.
2. National and regional anarchist conferences are open to all members and decisions have only the force of recommendations, being not binding on members or component groups.
3. Meetings between revocable delegates with a mandate from their affinity group may make decisions binding on the groups they represent on the specific matters for which they have a mandate.
Federation of Australian Anarchists Bulletin, No.3, Jan-Feb, 1975; also Rabelais, Vol.9, No.1.
This is a worthwhile document, but flawed. As I see it, what is being envisioned in the recent proposal is the creation of a means by which to facilitate communication and cooperation between existing anarchist groups. The FAA, on the other hand… is another matter, one which is probably not worth my while discussing at any greater length at this point in time.