Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Discussing Anarchist Political Opportunities

Our analysis of anarchist movements in six countries indicates a number of common themes. Additional evidence from other non-activist histories (i.e. outside of the A-Infos data) reinforces the major claims. There are two questions that can immediately be raised by this analysis. First, we are interested in confirming these general patterns in major anarchist histories—especially those histories focused on countries with large, vibrant movements such as Russia and Spain—as well as countries that have been the target of substantial research, like the US. Are the opportunity themes we discovered with Bolivia, Britain, the Czech Republic, Greece, Japan, and Venezuela consistent with those found in more well-known sites of the anarchist movement? Second, are there opportunity themes that we were surprised to find no mention of in the A-Infos data? In other words, are there “objective” opportunities that anarchist movements could have or likely took advantage of that are missing within the activist narratives we studied here?
State repression is a common theme throughout the activist and scholarly literatures on anarchism. For example, state response to anarchist opposition of WWI was extreme. Anarchists were (with a few notable exceptions, e.g. Peter Kropotkin) vocal opponents to WWI itself, viewing it as a war between capitalists and their state agents. Public opposition to the war coincided with a crackdown on radicals throughout the world. The Palmer Raids in the US are an illustrative example: foreign- and native-born anarchists and labor leaders were rounded-up, put on trial, and often deported (Renshaw 1968). The anarchist Union of Russian Workers was a target of particular interest, although there was scant evidence of their actual participation in illegality (Coben 1963). Individual US states also passed “criminal anarchy laws” that not only aimed to stop the overthrow of government, but also any criticism of representative government or politicians (Levin 1971).
The social revolution that seemed imminent within the radical movements of the early 1900s, prior to WWI, did eventually break-out. While Marxism predicted revolution would occur in a parliamentarian capitalist society, it instead happened in feudal and agrarian Russia. The popular revolution in February 1917 and the subsequent ascension to power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917 inspired radicals throughout the world. Many anarchists and other radicals were initially drawn towards this successful anti-capitalist revolution, and even if they did not end up converting to communism, they often provided material and propagandistic support for the Bolsheviks (Zimmer 2009). The Soviet Union formed a Third Internationalism which co-opted the radicalism that had grown in opposition to World War I (Levy 2004). Initially, Lenin employed key anarchist concepts in his speeches, thereby supporting the very causes Russian anarchists had pioneered and advocated, including the soviets and worker self-management. However, once in power, the Bolsheviks imprisoned anarchist critics, took control of the worker soviets, attacked and then dissolved the anarchist Mahknovist army in the Ukraine, and laid siege to disgruntled anarchist sailors during the Kronstadt Uprising (Avrich 1967). It took years (decades in some cases) for anarchists outside of Russia to conclude that the true aims of Lenin and the Bolsheviks were non-anarchist and “counter-revolutionary” at heart. As Joll (1964) writes:
The Marxists, by their success in Russia, now appeared to be a far more effective revolutionary force than the anarchists; and it was thus even harder for the anarchists to win and retain the support which would enable them to put into practice their own ideas of what the revolution should be. (p. 192)

The impact of Bolshevism seems nearly universal, not just within the A-Infos countries and in Russia, but throughout the world. The secondary literature verifies the narratives told within A-Infos. The major exception to the movement abeyance that began during the interwar years was in Spain. Anarcho-syndicalism had been widely adopted by large sectors of the Spanish working classes and unlike anarchists in other countries, the movement was large and ideologically-driven enough—under the organization of the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) anarcho-syndicalist union and the Federación Anarquista Ibérica—to retain its anarchist character until after Bolshevik repression began in Russia and peaked with the Kronstadt Uprising in 1921 (Bookchin 1998). Anarchists also played a prominent role in facilitating the defense against the attempted, and eventually successful, fascist coup by Franco during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). During this period, the CNT aligned itself with the socialist Republic forces fighting against the fascist army. Having this elite ally (the socialist Republican government) undoubtedly created pockets of freedom for anarchists to pursue their goals in land and factory collectivization. However, the Spanish Left remained divided and was repressed by the Stalinist forces, who were ostensibly aiding the Spanish Republic in its struggle against Franco. After the Communist suppression of the POUM (non-Stalinist Marxists) and the anarchist militias (predominantly organized by the CNT), Franco easily conquered the remaining outposts of Communist resistance, thus leading to a decades-long dictatorship. Anarchism, while not dead, then went into a period of dormancy, kept together by scattered newspapers and authors, waiting for a new resurgence. Spanish anarchists who escaped prison or death went underground or into exile abroad (Beevor 2006).
Anarchism's mid-20th Century reappearance would look radically different from early 20th Century anarchism that died in Spain. Consequently, the activity of anarchist movements around the world has been bi-modal. First, the “golden age” of anarchism was heavily involved in the labor movement and died away in the early decades of the 20th Century. Second, a re-birth—largely not directly connected to the first wave—mobilized in the 1960s New Left and counter-culture that diffused into many popular movements. The barriers to opportunities noted in Table 1 indicate demobilization associated with the repression around the time of WWI and the positive opportunities in the 1960s indicate a new mobilization period, although our data indicate that the specific triggers of anarchist organizing varied by country during this period of generally increased mobilization.
Although the New Left was “post-Old Left”—particularly unaffiliated to the Communist Party—this does not mean it was able to completely break free of the Old Left. For example, the major New Left organization in the US was Students for a Democratic Society, which by the late-1960s cannibalized itself into a smattering of various Leftist, non-anarchist sects (Balser 1997, Bookchin 2004, Sale 1973). However, the anti-authoritarian impulse of the New Left remained and found a place within other burgeoning movements outside the student movement, especially the feminist, anti-nuclear, and environmental movements, such as the organized called Movement for a New Society (Cornell 2011, Epstein 1991).

The continued evolution of the New Left throughout the 1960s provided opportunities for anarchism to re-emerge. In fact, the current wave of anarchism can be traced back to the New Left’s insistence upon “participatory democracy”, as opposed to “democratic centralism” (as offered by the Soviet bloc) or “representative democracy” (in the West). The New Left’s eventual rejection of formal leadership was not an immediate one, but emerged most clearly with the rise of the anti-nuclear and radical feminist movements (Epstein 1991). Here, the tactical emphasis upon cooperation, consensus decision making, and direct action are key anarchist contributions. Within this radical milieu emerged many of the key ideas and structures that would come to represent the anarchist movement of the 1990s, namely grassroots, community-based direct action, through the use of direct democracy and affinity groups (Polletta 2002).

We expected the A-Infos narratives to identify the advent of the Internet as a recent, technological opportunity for mobilization, but none mentioned the Internet in this fashion. This is a particularly noteworthy absence, given that our data source is itself the Internet; we expected anarchists to be reflective of the new chances for organizing being offered by the Internet. Although unremarked upon, the increasingly widespread use of the Internet as a popular tool for communication (the online version of A-Infos being a prime example) seems to have created an incredible set of cultural opportunities. Demands for free speech rights and information exchange have spread throughout the world. The Internet facilitated collaboration and networking between movement allies, even if separated by large geographic distances. The ease in coordinating protests also amplified activist voices and allowed for the wider dissemination of demands, as seen by the anti-capitalist protests organized by the decentralized network of Peoples’ Global Action. It is difficult to miss the uniquely anarchistic nature of the Internet, which functions as a decentralized network of information channels, that allow for easy voluntary association, and the relatively inexpensive ability to provide mutual aid, such as in setting-up websites, email accounts, and mailing listserves (Wall 2007). Anarchists were not only early adopters of the world-wide-web for propaganda purposes, but they have also created their own organizational infrastructure to avoid the influence of corporations and the state. Thus, autonomous collectives have spread throughout the world to provide the aforementioned Internet services to anarchists and other activists (Shantz 2003a). Although the case studies did not provide evidence for the self-described utility of the Internet to the movement, this does not discount the possibility that it was truly beneficial in an objective sense.


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Balser, Deborah. 1997. “The Impact of Environmental Factors on Factionalism and Schism in Social Movement Organizations”. Social Forces, 76 (1), September: 199-228.

Beevor, Antony. 2006. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. New York: Penguin.

Bookchin, Murray. 1998. The Spanish Anarchists: The Heroic Years, 1868-1936. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Bookchin, Murray. 2004. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Coben, Stanley. 1963. A. Mitchell Palmer: Politician. New York: Columbia University Press.

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Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movement. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Renshaw, Patrick. 1968. “The IWW and the Red Scare 1917-24”. Journal of Contemporary History, 3 (4): 63-72.

Sale, Kirkatrick. 1973. SDS. New York: Random House.

Shantz, Jeff. 2003a. “Seize the Switches: TAO Communications, Media, and Anarchy”. Pp. 209-223 in Representing Resistance: Media, Civil Disobedience, and the Global Justice Movement, edited by A. Opel and D. Pompper. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Wall, Melissa A. 2007. “Social Movements and Email: Expressions of Online Identity in the Globalization Protests”. New Media & Society, 9 (2): 258-277.

Zimmer, Kenyon. 2009. “Premature Anti-Communists?: American Anarchism, the Russian Revolution, and Left-Wing Libertarian Anti-Communism, 1917-1939”. Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, 6 (2): 45-71.