anarchist notes (september 20, 2012) w/- bonus! hitchens


Sam Mbah — you might remember him from such anarcho-syndicalist organisations as the Awareness League — has a blog. It contains a series of interviews with him on subjects including his book African Anarchism, the global economic crisis and the Nigerian fuel tax uprising, climate change and the environmental crisis in Nigeria, and more.


Well, kinda. Not really. But for some reason Arvind Sivaramakrishnan has reviewed Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism for The Hindu, concluding that “the current prospect of global economic and environmental catastrophe, together with increasingly obvious evidence that ordinary people have seen through the current orthodoxies, may well mean that anarchism now has perhaps its best opportunity ever. So timely is this book that few would guess its first edition was in 1970.”

Middle East

Syria, to be exact. A Syrian anarchist wrote a little about the situation there in a letter posted on the SolFed site back in July; it relates to some issues regarding anarchism and Middle East politics that I plan on addressing in a later post. Of particular relevance is this article by Andrew Flood, As Gaddafi falls – Lessons from Libya – imperialism, anti-imperialism & democratic revolution (August 29, 2011).


Santiago Carrillo, a Spanish Communist Leader, Deaded at 97 reports Leslie Kaufman in The New York Times (September 19, 2012). I recall reading an essay about Carrillo in an issue of the 1970s English anarchist publication Cienfuegos Press Review; Rudolf Rocker makes reference to him in his essay on ‘The Tragedy in Spain’ (1937). In a more contemporary vein, Alias Recluse has published an English translation of a presentation titled ‘Theoretical anarchism and anarchist ideology’ by Miguel Amorós, which examines the trajectory of the CNT since the civil war and especially in the immediate post-Franco era.

On Spanish anarchism, see also Stuart Christie’s website.

Anarchist homes have been raided in Belarus — reports of raids on homes in Brest — and the United States. Will Potter writes (July 30, 2012) that FBI Agents Raid Homes in Search of “Anarchist Literature” in Terrorism Court Cases. “When FBI and Joint Terrorism Task Force agents raided multiple activist homes in the Northwest last week, they were in search of “anti-government or anarchist literature.”

Since that time, a grand jury is trying to twist the arms of anarchists. Facing Grand Jury Intimidation: Fear, Silence and Solidarity, Natasha Lennard, Truthout, August 30, 2012:

We’ve seen some pretty bold anti-authoritarian actions across the country in the last month. Police vehicles were vandalized in San Francisco, Oakland, Illinois and Milwaukee. Anarchist redecorators visited courthouses, police substations, sports car dealerships and more. Banners dropped in New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, Seattle and elsewhere echoed their graffitied sentiments: “Fuck Grand Juries”; “Solidarity with Northwest Anarchists.” Boldest of all, however (and the inspiration underpinning this spate), has been the action from a small group of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest: silence.

More recently (September 13), Matt Duran has been thrown in jail for his refusal to cooperate, while Leah-Lynn Plante is also under pressure. You can read more about their cases (and those of other resisters) at the Committee Against Political Repression blog here.

Above : Matt and his cat are staying solid.

Speaking of violence, the September 12 debate between Chris Hedges and CrimethInc on the subject of The Cancer that is The Black Bloc™ and whatnot is previewed here by AK Thompson and available for viewing courtesy of brandon jourdan. “Hedges and Traven can say they are debating the black bloc, but what they are really doing is destroying the Internets,” the writer and environmental activist Derrick Jensen told me when I reached him by smoke signal in Colorado.

As for Occupy, Aragorn! has drawn some lessons: four, in fact, concentrating on the experience on the US West Coast. In addition, Little Black Cart has published a book on Occupy Everything: Anarchists in the Occupy Movement 2009-2011.

Finally, from anarchists in fact to anarchists in fiction, I stumbledupon this post from March, 2010 in which some anarchic law-talking guy proclaims ‘Wanted: An Anarchist PI’: “No, as far as I know, I don’t need a gumshoe personally. But I think the anarchist movement does.”

Are there any?

Bonus Hitchens on Anarchism!

A goddamn hipster on tumblr has republished a 1989 article by Hitchens on left-anarchists: “a lineage of losers”, originally published as ‘Loss Leaders’ in Grand Street (Vol.8, No.3, Spring, 1989).

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I took a small part in a demonstration outside the South African Embassy in London. The embassy is situated on Trafalgar Square, at a confluence of several slow streams of traffic (“The full tide of humanity,” said Dr. Johnson, “is to be found at Charing Cross”) and there we pitched our picket. The idea was to satirize the apartheid pass laws. Some of our number had dressed up in South African police uniforms: a distinctive match of peaked cap, belt and boots quite alien to the “London bobby” sensibility—at least as we knew it then. The plan was a “see how you like it” happening, with these impostors rapping on car windows, accosting passers-by and saying, “Show me your pass” in assumed Afrikaner accents.

I shall never forget the harvest of this piece of street theater. Nervous, awkward grins and stupid excuses: “I’m awfully sorry, officer, I seem to have mislaid it.”… “I don’t actually live in London, I’m visiting relations.” Nobody told us to fuck off. Everybody deferred to the strange uniform, and cursed the bureaucratic announcement they must somehow have missed. Partly no doubt, this was the British folk-memory of rationing, queues and Civil Defense (so handy in manuring the ground for nuclear “preparedness”). But it hinted at something else, ghastly and servile. When I later read, in a flimsy pamphlet from the Freedom Press, that the problem of humanity was not the will to command but the urge to obey, I felt that I had already come across the notion somewhere.

The Freedom Press, based in a crepuscular White-chapel alley, had once boasted Prince Peter Kropotkin himself as a patron and author. Yet what did this exponent of the chainless mind, this selfless, saintly, reflective and kindly old booby do in 1914? Why, he declared for the victory of the “Allies.” In far away Australia, J.W. Fleming was hard hit by this apostasy. He had carried the black flag of anarchy along the Melbourne waterfront, and braved the toughest crowds in his speechmaking and soap-boxing on the Yarra Bank. He was more than ready to risk prisons and goon squads for a trifle, like the opening of public libraries on the Sabbath. To oppose imperialist war, that special orgy of the state, he would go the limit. To Emma Goldman he wrote:

I regret to think that after all these years, having accepted Kropotkin as teacher and guide, he should so disappoint us. I feel oppressed. [Italics mine]

Fleming’s choice of phrase might serve as the crux of Paul Avrich’s charming and melancholy album of silhouettes, Anarchist Portraits (Princeton University Press). The tradition of which he writes so upliftingly must always be what he unintentionally reveals it to have always been—a lineage of losers. And this is not because of anything in the makeup of the volunteers, not all of whom were as brave as Fleming or as irritating as Kropotkin. It is because the anarchist must embody certain Platonic truths that are at once undeniable and unrealizable.

You can see this fateful, moving, necessary contradiction in the usages that reflect and express the stock of prevailing ideas about anarchy and anarchism. Even Shelley, whose Masque of Anarchy is one of the finest hymns of hate to authority to have come down to us, referred dully to the “ship of state” as it veered between “the Scylla and Charybdis of anarchy and despotism.” John Ruskin, who knew some sympathetic London anarchists, wrote that “government and cooperation are in all things the laws of life; anarchy and competition the laws of death.” Yeats automatically referred to “anarchy” as “mere.” The primeval image is perhaps sustained from Milton, the old rebel who used it repeatedly as his allegory of Hell and Satan and chaos—“the anarch old”; ‘“eternal anarchy amid the noise / of endless wars.”

I can only come up with two compliments implied by the use of the term. One is Edmund Burke’s, when he described The Rights of Man as “a sort of institution and digest of anarchy.” The other, more subtle, comes in Auden’s poem In Memory of Sigmund Freud:

Sad is Eros, builder of cities,
And weeping anarchic Aphrodite.

Just as you may—must—believe in the power of love but not know quite how to institutionalize it, so you may say with the anarchist that “No one is good enough to be another’s master” while believing or suspecting that this is a vital but impossible precept. Meanwhile, it is not just fear of freedom that makes the oppressed dread the idea of anarchy. There are other folk memories, and in the general recollection it is recalled that chaos, an archy, what you will, meant the domain of the strongest, and necessitated appeals to kings and barons for blessed order. Probably for this reason, a more glib successor generation prefers the term “libertarian”, which has none of the crude, urgent tones of “anarchist.”

Most of Avrich’s subjects would have scorned any such emulsifying title. They were proud of their intransigence and careless of compromise. Fleming, who I must say is my favorite find in the book, didn’t in the least mind addressing his fellow workers (as Robert Tressell was later and more successfully to do in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists) as “mutton-heads”:

The capitalist need only threaten, and obedience immediately comes forth. Conscription, the cherished weapon of the oppressors, is firmly rooted. Children fourteen years of age are imprisoned in a military fort over a hundred miles from Melbourne. This is what Labour government has brought Australia to. Oh, hell, can these human weeds become virile? I am shouting Anarchy.

There is a non sequitur here, but it is a very exciting and excellent one, voicing the millennial human resistance to coercion, and the repudiation of the idea that man-made authority is part of the natural order. Would you have wished more, or fewer, anarchists around in the Thousand Year Reich or any of the other fantasies of hierarchy?

Avrich does not neglect the herbivorous anarchists; those who meant their peaceful and useful lives to embody harmony and order, or “mutualism” as it was slightly depressingly called. Such a one was Benjamin Tucker, the mold and model of the New England gentleman-anarchist, whose life was the pattern of anarcho-fogeyism. As he put it, with refulgent self-regard:

There are four lines of Emerson which I am fond of quoting.
When the Church is social worth,
When the State-house is the hearth,
Then the perfect state has come,
The republican at home.

Though there was nobility to Tucker—he called in his faithful housekeeper to witness the stubbornness of his deathbed atheism—his life and that of his family could have been drawn by an acidulated Miss Austen, and his insane fear of the motorcar and of vulgarity would have accoutred him ill for the Yarra Bank. His editions of the review Liberty, however, are accounted by all to have been both beautiful and scrupulous. And his friend Voltairine de Cleyre (about whose parents’ christening theories one would have liked to know more) wrote of him significantly that he sent his “finehard shafts among foes and friends with an icy impartiality, hitting swift and cutting keen—and ever ready to nail a traitor.” (Italics mine again.) The Saint-Just of an Emersonian ideal state is an arresting mental image.

One of the Freedom Press anarchists—George Woodcock, possibly—once said that the proper definition of “anarchist” is, ”something you are, not something you do.” If accepted, this would explain why those who profess or practice anarchism are so spoiled for choice when it comes to feeling “oppressed” or to detecting “traitors.” But this also makes the anarchist personality a highly sensitive register. Take the famous case of Mollie Steimer, Jacob Abrams and their comrades. Scandalously persecuted for the promulgation of their opinions by mere leaflet, during the scare set off by Attorney General Palmer in 1919, they mounted such a tenacious defense that Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in dissent, more or less restated the First Amendment as we know it today. The defendants, however, were deported through Ellis Island (another of those histories they don’t teach you in school) to their presumed homeland of Russia. And who saw them off at the quay? The Fraye Arbeter Shtime, a Yiddish anarchist paper editorializing that there would be nothing but grief awaiting them on the other shore.

Well, the Fraye Arbeter Shtime was right, and right about the Red Scare, too. It is this irreducible quality in anarchism, its attitude to power, however wielded, and to power lovers, however enlightened, that lifts it above the eccentricities and the arcane factionalism and purism which are so often sneered at.

Robert Paul Wolff wrote In Defense of Anarchism to illuminate this very distinction:

Taking responsibility for one’s actions means taking the final decisions about what one should do. For the autonomous man, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a command.

Ah yes, say the conformists and the wise, but what if everyone thought like that? Passing over Yossarian’s imperishable reply to that old taunt (“In that case I’d be a damn fool to think any other way”), consider Wolff’s response:

If someone in my environment is issuing what are intended as commands, and if he or others expect those commands to be obeyed, that fact will be taken account of in my deliberations. I may decide that I ought to do what that person is commanding me to do, and it may even be that his issuing the command is the factor in the situation which makes it desirable for me to do so. For example, if I am on a sinking ship and the captain is giving orders for manning the lifeboats, and if everyone else is obeying the captain because he is the captain, I may decide that under the circumstances I had better do what he says, since the confusion caused by disobeying him would be generally harmful. But insofar as I make such a decision, I am not obeying his command; that is, I am not acknowledging him as having authority over me. I would make the same decision, for exactly the same reasons, if one of the passengers had started to issue ”orders” and had, in the confusion, come to be obeyed.

Why does this take so long to say? Partly because it derives from a lengthy reasoning by Kant, and partly because it has to cut carefully against the grain of conditioning: the confusion of office and uniform with authority. As Wolff says, with an irony that is possibly unconscious: “The responsible man is not capricious or anarchic, for he does acknowledge himself bound by moral constraints. But he insists that he alone is the judge of those constraints.”

This returns us to the figure of Tucker in Avrich’s portrayal. There is a reason for the affected profession of “anarchist sympathies” among Tories and grandees, and of “libertarian principles” by Hobbesian yahoos of the Right. Among the former, one sees the upholding of the view that a gentleman’s business and property are his own, and none of the government’s. Among the latter, a distaste for democracy, for taxation, and for the need to consult others about the planet. The unmolested gent and the selfish commercant are not the models of autonomy that anarchists are supposed to have in mind, but then, there is a slightly arrogant tone even to Fleming’s dismissal of the “mutton-heads.”

Yet precisely because they deal in “eternal verities,” purist anarchists must operate independently of history and politics. There is, for them, no important distinction between sufficient and necessary conditions; no need to study the evolution of society or production. Their often religious and millennial attitude to the future derives in part from a religious attitude toward the past; toward some primordial and timeless hellhole of ignorance, innocence and simplicity such as Eden is reported to have been. Of all the anarchists I have read, only Noam Chomsky seems to have given any thought to the question of technology, and to the potentially liberating and counter hierarchical possibilities of high-tech innovation. But these effects are democratic rather than anarchic, and for the anarchist the democratic notion of “the consent of the governed”—actually a rather highly-evolved concept—is only another form of acquiescence.

This still leaves the indispensable anarchist who ought to dwell in all of us. The one who pushes away the proffered Kool-Aid even when it comes from the chalice of Jones the Redeemer, the one who asks the South African cop in Trafalgar Square for his name and number, the little boy in Lord of the Flies, noticed by E. P.Thompson, who gazes defiantly at the latest fetish of the gang and manages nervously to get out the words, “Pig’s Head on a Stick.”

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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4 Responses to anarchist notes (september 20, 2012) w/- bonus! hitchens

  1. natmo says:

    Very interesting article by the late Hitch. The notion that anarchism is “something you are not something you do” is close to the position of the Sydney Libertarians of old who believed that anarchism in its activist mode was more likely to produce results that were the opposite of those intended. Their ‘activism,’ such as it was, involved ‘enquiry’ – the effort to identify the facts of unfree conditions – and, armed with these facts, the subsequent effort to live a ‘free life’ within the sea of unfreedom.

  2. @ndy says:

    A form of political quietism, in other words.

  3. natmo says:

    Yes, it can be interpreted as a form of political quietism (futilitarianism), although they did engage in often relentless and public criticism of all they regarded as interfering with freedom. On the other hand many of them did participate in activist-type activities that were oppositional to the status quo but with no specific outcomes in mind, other than perhaps an expansion of the realm of free activity (anarchism without ends) and as an expression of that free activity itself.

  4. @ndy says:

    I guess much depends on yr defintions… leaving aside the notions of ‘activism’ and ‘freedom’, it seems that what is absent is a sense of collective struggle, one pitched at the transformation of society more broadly. Otoh, as you point out, some Pushists did engage in what could reasonably be termed political activism as well as critical drinking. Most of my knowledge of the group (network?) is dependent on Anne Coombs’ bio, a scattering of other docs, and anecdotal. Also, the idea that “anarchism in its activist mode was more likely to produce results that were the opposite of those intended”, while certainly controversial, is not entirely unreasonable. It also suggests the possibility that this ‘mode’, however defined, might conceivably produce results that were commensurate with those intended; further, that the Pushist’s pickled pessimism was more likely to have been a product of the times than it was some eternal verity.

    I’m not sure how well this all fits into Hitch’s lament, although there may be some resonance in terms of Freedom’s liberalism and the Pushists’; typically, anarchists are shoved into a disembraining machine before being presented to the literati.

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