Letter to an Anarchist Activist

Dear T,

You asked me “why aren’t you an anarchist?” I’ll answer your question, but first I want to explain why I find talking about labels – and this label in particular – often isn’t very illuminating.

It’s true that “socialist” by itself is ambiguous. Over 40 years ago Hal Draper wrote “there has never been a time when the label was less informative,” and it’s not much clearer now. But “anarchist” is even more ambiguous. For some people, “anarchist” seems to be little more than a synonym for “activist” or “radical.”  Among those who are more serious about anarchist ideas, some act as if living differently everyday (for example, community gardening, co-ops, cycling and DIY culture) will eventually transform society. Then there are “insurrectionist” anarchists, who are enthusiastic about tiny groups of people attacking corporate and state targets and hostile to efforts to build lasting organizations. There are also anarchists who get involved in today’s workplace and neighbourhood organizing in order to cultivate the seeds of mass movements and work towards social revolution.

Another problem about talking about labels is that it’s sometimes a sectarian exercise. I know you didn’t ask the question in that spirit. But some anarchists want to collaborate only with people who identify as anarchists, and write off other people as “authoritarians.” This is one symptom of how insular some anarchist scenes are. Some anarchist activities bring together people who don’t have much in common besides the label. Focusing on ideological labels rather than on what people really think and, even more important, what they do is a sign that a group is insular and disconnected. This isn’t just a problem among anarchists, of course. It’s not a habit that any serious fighter for social change should have.

Enough about labels. Your question deserves an answer. I think you asked because socialists like me clearly don’t think the NDP is going to deliver the change we want. We’re not nationalists but internationalists. We don’t look to an elite to hand radical change down from above to ordinary people. We agree that Cuba and North Korea are bureaucratic dictatorships. We support workers and indigenous people when they come into conflict with governments in the South such as those of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales. We, like you, are anti-racist, feminist, queer liberationist and try to practice these commitments, rather than saying they’re for “after the revolution.” Like you, we encourage democratic decision-making when we organize. So why aren’t we anarchists?

The central issue facing all radicals is how to fight for social change. Supporters of socialism from below look to building counter-power through mass mobilizations of workers and oppressed people. In struggles for immediate reforms we encourage new forms of democracy to challenge the limits of existing institutions and ultimately those institutions themselves. Strikes and other kinds of workplace direct action hit capitalism where it’s weakest, but counter-power is also built in neighbourhoods, on campuses and in the streets.

I’m sure you and I agree that most anarchists don’t take this approach. Even many anarchists who also consider themselves socialists (libertarian socialists or communists) don’t. Instead, many anarchists believe in building self-organized alternative institutions, like co-ops, as the seeds of a new society.

We both agree that this isn’t the way to go. Co-ops that produce goods or services for sale compete with capital on its own terms, rather than putting energy into confronting its power. You’ve made it clear to me that your vision of anarchism is a kind of socialism from below. You agree about building counter-power through struggle. I’m very glad we agree about this, and I’m happy that there seem to be at least a few more anarchists who are adopting this kind of libertarian socialism. You and I clearly agree about a lot. So where’s the disagreement? The biggest disagreement is about political organization. Let me explain what I mean.

Social struggles are usually about people resisting attacks or demanding reforms, whether that means higher pay, stronger rights or the resignation of a government. The process that the working class goes through as people act collectively to defend themselves or make gains is complex. Socialists should always be part of this process. It’s only through the process of struggle that the working class can become more united, militant and radical. Sometimes people struggle against capitalists (their employers, landlords and so on). At other times they mobilize and put demands on governments, on states. Whoever people are taking on, socialists should do everything we can to help such struggles — and the new ways of organizing that they throw up — grow and spread. Organizations of struggle are different from non-confrontational alternative institutions like co-ops. I’m sure we agree about all this.

But no working class in history has ever been able to maintain mass struggle at an intense level for a long period of time. Unless people take control of society themselves, they eventually need to go back to work to support themselves and their dependents. This is one reason why exploited and oppressed people often create and support political parties to try to advance their interests and for such parties to seek to form governments. A classic example is how in Brazil the Workers’ Party (PT) was created in 1980, following the rise of new unions that were, at the time, militant and democratic. On a much smaller scale, we can see how community activists and other leftists created Quebec Solidaire (QS) in 2006. The goal of left-wing parties is usually the struggle for reforms within a capitalist society, not revolution – in other words, they’re reformist parties (whether radical, like the PT was in its early years, or moderate, like QS).

Even when they’re not reformist, such parties often don’t act in consistently anti-capitalist ways. When serious anti-capitalist political organizations run candidates in elections, they face pressures to make elections — rather than building counter-power – their central activity even if their activists understand that revolution can’t be made through parliament.

Yet even reformist parties are sometimes part of the process through which the working class develops as a political force. For that reason, it’s a mistake for radicals who support working-class struggle to refuse to ever get involved in parties that don’t share all our ideas. Anarchist socialists take that stand. Most Marxist socialists, myself included, don’t. We believe that it’s important to learn from and try to influence important political experiences that large numbers of worker activists are going through.

To give one example, the creation of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Canada in 1932 was a small step forward at the time. CCF supporters called the Liberals and Tories parties of big business, campaigning for a new political force pledged to major social change. In the 1930s, many CCFers wanted a non-capitalist future. Revolutionary socialists had an opportunity to engage with CCFers about what the alternative to capitalism was and how to achieve it. The CCF had many limitations, including its leadership’s devotion to elections as the only path to social change. But, in spite of its inadequacies, the CCF’s launch was a step forward for working-class politics because it was a left-wing party that was independent of the capitalist class and challenged the influence of its parties.

Even when revolutions break out, the politics of socialism from below don’t spontaneously become dominant among workers. We can see this in Egypt and Tunisia today. Support for our politics has to be argued for, against reformist and other political forces. To do this, revolutionary political organizations are needed.

I’m glad some anarchist-socialists (“platformists,” for example) recognize the need for them. But these comrades generally refuse to join broader anti-capitalist political organizations when they’re created, like the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France and the Party of Socialism and Freedom in Brazil. They see such organizations as insufficiently revolutionary. I think that’s a mistake. Whatever their weaknesses, such broad anti-capitalist political organizations can help to build movements, link different struggles and take on pro-capitalist politics in the battle of ideas. In this way they can advance self-organization, unity, solidarity and radicalism among workers and oppressed people today.

I hope this answers your question. I think that in this part of the world the most important task facing radicals today is fostering resistance, which means working to build social movements. All of us who want to do this need to work together more closely than we usually do – there are urgent challenges facing us. As we work together, we’ll have time to talk about our disagreements.

In solidarity,

David Camfield