We anarchists rarely talk about anarchism, at least not to others. This article argues that by shying away from our politics, we’re only making things more difficult for ourselves in the long run.
‘Activism’ and Anarchism
Anarchists are among the most active members of radical, grassroots campaigns here in the UK, yet we all too often neglect to talk about our politics. We’re scared of putting people off, we’re embarrassed about the connotations of the A-word, we’re reluctant to appear dogmatic, and sometimes, perhaps, we secretly lack belief in our ideals. Anarchism seems a utopic dream, a joke, even; and certainly not something that should guide our activism, or that we should be living in the here and now.
Instead, we tend to get caught up in ‘activism’ or ‘campaigning’, focusing primarily on issues of immediate concern to the campaign, and engaging in narrow debates about the legitimacy of a particular state policy, rather than the underlying issues. This is exemplified by complaints about overtly racist parties like UKIP, the absence of ‘intelligence’ in immigration raids, or the existence of police databases on activists. Rarely in these arguments do we even so much as mention our opposition to all political parties, immigration controls, the police, or the state in general. This weakens our arguments and reinforces the apparent legitimacy of the state.
This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to involve ourselves with various struggles, for it is there that we act on our principles of freedom, equality, and solidarity. And it is in practical action on issues that matter to people that we forge links of comradeship with others and present anarchism not just as pie in the sky, but an everyday reality and possibility. This commitment to direct action is one of the things that has always given us an edge over the liberals and socialists and has often attracted others to our ideas, yet this can only happen in a meaningful way if we are open about our politics.
What are we really afraid of?
So why are we so scared of the A-word?
Anarchism has assumed plenty of negative connotations, particularly arising from misconceptions of limitless freedom that it supposedly entails. One reason we neglect to talk about our politics is fear of pushing people away or losing the support our projects or campaigns might enjoy. Yet our predecessors battled against a considerably more hostile tide, and our ideals are too important to allow this anxiety to silence us.
Another reason we eschew the anarchist label is our aversion to dogmatism, or the use of campaigns purely as a vehicle for our politics, as the SWP. However, being explicit in our beliefs – as other groups do without too much problem – does not necessarily need fanaticism or dogmatism. And unlike the Trots, our objectives are not tied to the existing order; we do not ultimately seek power for ourselves, but desire a deep social change which is inseparable from the struggles we are fighting in the present. There is nothing disingenuous about having politics, but there is in hiding them.
If anything, our distrust of authoritarian groups should produce precisely the opposite response. Do we allow propaganda’s odious connotations with the authoritarianism of Trotskyism, Stalinism or Fascism to erase our own rich history of it? Are we really going to swallow the liberal pill that putting forth a political position is somehow essentially elitist, arrogant and oppressive? After all, every major anarchist figure at the turn of the 20th century was in some way or another involved in propaganda – whether by deed or word.
Ultimately, our fear of dogma or essentialist ‘labels’ leaves us with nothing but a postmodern vacuum, where everyone wants the freedom not to be pigeonholed by labels or ideologies, without acknowledging that this leaves us with little to bring us together. In a society suffering from acute alienation, this is the very last thing we need.
We ultimately need to stop allowing what we do to be determined by others, or by our fear of what they think of us – whether they be socialists, the ‘public’, the media, or the state.
A case for shameless propagandising
If we are serious about the intersectional (joined up) nature of our struggles, we need to come back to anarchism, for it is our anarchism which informs our anti-capitalism, our anti-racism and migrant solidarity, our fight against patriarchy and gender, or whatever our struggle might be. We need to move away from single issues and redefine our relationship with anarchism to give it precedence. It is only anarchism as a political theory and practice that holds the potential for a strong and consistent critique of all forms of domination. This is not to say that it is perfect or that what is said and done engages with all issues profoundly and well, but anarchism is not to be found in a single text; it is found in a whole host of works, in different languages and countries, and is perhaps most importantly embodied in our actions. If we feel it lacking in some way, the onus is on us to develop and improve it. It is strangely ironic that there has been such a push for intersectional politics on the left more generally over the past twenty years, while our willingness to talk openly about anarchism seems to have been in decline. For me at least, with the most robust critique of all forms of hierarchy, anarchism is intersectionality.
We also need to talk about anarchism if we actually believe in the possibility of meaningful change; that is, if we see political activism as more than just a game. It is by coming back to our anarchist roots that we can re-frame stale and narrow discourses and even talk about and imagine radical possibilities, let alone start involving other people in effecting them. It is by returning to anarchism that we avoid the pitfalls of reformist tweaking at the edges of the system.
The long view
We cannot allow our agenda to be determined what the media decides is important and newsworthy, or what we think ‘the public’ wants to hear. We need to assume control of our struggles and that also means taking responsibility for how we characterise the problems we face. Our failure to do this means that we do absolutely nothing to shift the political goalposts on law, ‘crime’, borders, race, gender, our environment, the police, economics, sexuality, or any other issues we care about. Discourses and debates operate on their terms, assumptions and rationalities, the result being that anarchist concepts like borderlessness, prison abolition, anti-speciesism, squatting and the destruction of the state become more taboo and untouchable than ever. That anarchism continues purely to be synonymous with chaos here in the UK, rather than a set of powerful political ideas on which we should base our relationships, tells us a lot about how far we have to go. Doing ‘activism’ is not enough; anyone can do that. The real question is whether we are effecting this change on a deeper level, and if so, in what direction.