Anarchism in Interesting Times
“The history of our times calls to mind those Walt Disney characters who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it, so that the power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air; but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall.”
- Raoul Vaneigem – The Revolution of Everyday Life
“Every new idea stems from one or a few individuals, is accepted, if viable, by a more or less sizeable minority and wins over the majority, if ever, only after it has been superseded by new ideas and new needs and has already become outdated and rather an obstacle, rather than a spur to progress.”
- Errico Malatesta – Neither Democrats, Nor Dictators: Anarchists
Sometimes when you’re standing in the eye of the storm, you don’t notice the destruction that encircles you and amidst the maelstrom of resistance and reaction that is our present era, it is difficult to see that political organisations be they left or right are suspended in mid-air having run off the edge of a cliff. It might not feel like it right now, but in politics, in the sphere of political economy, everything that we believed to be fixed is in the process of turning into it’s opposite. The information technology revolution that began in the early 1990’s has irreversibly changed the means by which we distribute information, it has allowed people to be their own media via platforms like Facebook and Twitter and blog hosting facilities such as wordpress. Some of the most effective political action of the current decade has been organised via social networks rather than central committees. No longer can the diktats of leaders be handed down without the fear of being answered back, without the cold hand of reality slapping you in the face.
If you want to see how the world has changed during your lifetime, it is imperative to look at how you have changed and how the material conditions of your life have changed during the same era. For that reason I will take a deeply personal approach to this section and write about the early years of my own activism when I was a young Trotskyist. I realise some will see this as an attack on my old comrades as I’ve been accused of this in the past, but as far as I’m concerned it is not, it is a learning experience for myself that they are welcome to participate in should they wish.
I had just reached adulthood when internet use became more common place. At first I saw it as this cool waste of time, somewhere to talk about football or play the fictional card game from Star Wars, sabaac (I’m a little sad that website isn’t around anymore), when I was supposed to be writing essays about Hegel or Wittgenstein. In fact, what I was doing was probably more useful than studying for my BA degree, I was learning a set of skills that would become essential in the networked age. At the same time, I had become immersed in a political activism that revolved around a methodology that was at least a century old; Printed propaganda , petitions and a rigid command structure. It was at that time, still a methodology that made some kind of sense but, within years, in part due to the new information technology, in part due to the destruction of old relationships between classes and the means of production and the creation of new ones, it would look horribly archaic.
From super-weapon to paper tiger
If the party newspaper represented the foundations of the Leninist conception of the revolutionary party, then the internet represents the wrecking ball. The founding intellectuals of the left, both Marxist and Anarchist by and large, came from the upper and middle classes. They were literate, they had access to newspapers, journals, university education and libraries. In other words, they had access to the accumulated knowledge of the ruling class and the intellect to interpret it to develop their own political programmes. The birth of the paper gave the political organisation the ability to direct the flow of information to the working class.
The flow of information, of course was not strictly one way, but Lenin in his seminal 1901 pamphlet, What is to be done? was very clear on the role played by the working class:
Since there can be no talk of an independent ideology formulated by the working masses themselves in the process of their movement, the only choice is – either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a “third” ideology). (This does not mean, of course, that the workers have no part in creating such an ideology. They take part, however, not as workers, but as socialist theoreticians, as Proudhons and Weitlings, to the extent that they are able to acquire the knowledge of their age and develop that knowledge.)
To be clear, what Lenin saw in the party publication was “a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, (and) also a collective organiser“, and your contribution towards the formation the ideas that formed the basis of that project were based on your ability to access information. For the majority of a working class who hadn’t got the advantage of an education, access to libraries etc. access to that information came via the ‘socialist theoreticians’, some of whom could be workers, with the correct training. To be fair to Lenin (and it’s not often you will see me write that), he was not alone in the way he used party publications, he just emphasised the importance of them in building a political movement more than most at the time and in terms of building a revolutionary movement, the method was roaring success.
From 1996 to 2009 I was a member of the Socialist Party (Irish Section of the CWI – Trotskyist). While the party engaged in a lot of useful organising around issues including but not limited to, workers rights, the anti-war movement and, the water and bin charges, the one activity that was constant throughout my years of membership was the paper sale. You’d be out beating a path around a housing estate on a Wednesday or Thursday night going door to door. On Saturdays you’d be on a street stall promoting some aspect of the party’s campaigning work or some topical issue, but selling the paper to anyone who showed an interest in the topic was paramount.
Lenin’s conception of the paper as organiser was drummed into us. The superiority of our class based ideas would win over ‘the most advanced sections’ of the working class, who would become organisers, join the party and learn to think like us and write for and sell the paper themselves. Of course many articles covered trade union struggles and would have quotes from those involved, but nine times out of ten, the analysis, the direction on the correct course of action was left to the ‘socialist theoreticians.’ At our annual conference there was always a motion presented on the importance of the paper by the executive committee and it was always littered with Lenin quotes on publications.
The whole period during which I was a member of the Socialist Party coincided with the rise of information technology. In 1996 the world wide web was a pretty new thing and it was easy to ignore it’s potential if you weren’t a business analyst, a tech person or a member of Jesus Jones, whose 1993 single Zeros and Ones seems like prophecy now. By and large the party did ignore it. At some stage a website was set up that had photos of local reps (future election candidates) with brief bios. Articles from the paper weren’t put up online and it stayed like that for years. But the internet wasn’t going away and while the Trotskyist parties (I imagine it was like this across the board, but I can only give examples from personal experience) did their best to ignore this revolutionary phenomenon, anarchists were embracing it.
If it wasn’t for those pesky anarchists
In 2001 while I was engaged in a postgraduate course in journalism and media communications, ironically I guess, at the suggestion of then party paper editor, Tom Crean, I interviewed anarchist, Andrew Flood in The Oval pub in central Dublin, about the summit protest phenomenon. After the conclusion of the recorded interview, my curiosity peaked, I continued to ask questions about anarchism, a subject at that point I knew next to nothing about. At the conclusion of our pints, as we wrapped up an interesting and friendly chat, Andrew directed me towards an internet forum (flagblackened.net) where anarchists from around the world shared news about campaigns, debated theory and also discussed books, films and music. I had used internet forums before, mainly to talk about football, but logging on to the flag blackened forum was a massive culture shock.
Logging on there and declaring oneself a Trotskyist straight off the bat, was like walking into a bar full of Celtic fans in a Rangers jersey. The debate was heated, someone called me a ‘statist fuck’ and no one would accept my quotes from Lenin and Trotsky as justification for the suppression of the Kronstadt revolt. The many hours spent on flag blackened didn’t win me over to anarchism, but those debates would stay with me. You can’t unread what you have read. The heated nature of the debate didn’t put me off either, I was hungry for more. It was then I discovered indymedia Ireland.
Now, the Irish far left is not all that big, less so at the outbreak of the war in Iraq eleven years ago, so generally, people try to work together despite organisational and ideological differences. It usually ends in disaster and my views on cooperation with some organisations have altered somewhat, but in general, unlike in other countries, people got on, for the sake of campaigns. While you might have met people from other organisations at public meetings and occasionally in the pub after a protest, after finishing university I had few in depth conversations with them; Indymedia changed that.
On the one hand indymedia was a source for all the news from the coalface of anti-capitalism the mainstream media wouldn’t print. On the other, it was a rolling argument between various factions of the left. Theoretical debates were in the minority and most of the discussions centred around campaigns that we were involved in (and others we weren’t – but there isn’t space to go into all that right now). A few of us in the Socialist Party embraced the opportunity to engage in polemic against the SWP, the anarchists, the republicans and anyone else who got in the way of our project. In between paper sales, stalls and campaigns, we would log on to ruthlessly defend the party line. But while I was doing this, I was also infected by what the orthodox trotskyist might call ‘alien ideas’, not all of them anarchist. Former members of our organisation would drop in to attack the party. John Throne, a former leading member railed against the party’s lack of democracy, while another, Denis Tourish, argued that it was a cult.
Go out and build the party like it’s 1899
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the ‘socialist theoreticians’ were still resisting the digitisation of information. Socialist Youth, the youth wing of the party, whose website was far better than the official party one, had recently been asked politely to take down the forum they had attached to it. There were too many trolls, or whatever they were called back then. It had been seen as interfering with democratic centralism and there was a feared outward leak of information. Against this backdrop, some members, one of which, ironically, I had brought towards the party via an internet forum, proposed a motion for a closed internal forum where theory and policy could be debated and which also could be a tool for organising.
The motion, at our 2005 annual conference, which was held in my hometown of Navan, was voted down at the request of the national committee (NC) (long story, see democratic centralism above). The fears of trolls and of leaks won the day, despite the assurances that secure forums were, well, secure, from those of us who were in favour. Having said that, it was one of the few motions where more than one or two defied the NC. I would later come to realise that the real fear from the NC, particularly from the executive, was that it would facilitate debate between members across the country and remove the privileged position of the party full timers as the gate keepers of information and communication. The executive committee, usually made up exclusively of full timers (the body, on paper sat below the national conference and the NC but in reality was at the top) always argued that it was best placed to facilitates such things and arbitrate between branches outside of conference. One of the results of such a set up was that most conference motions were proposed by the NC.
At the same time that the hopes of a small minority for a more modern, more democratic and more efficient means of internal communication were quashed, the executive were warning us that indymedia was a cesspool of disorganised elements and petit bourgeois ideology. There was no point, were told, in arguing with people on the internet as we wouldn’t convince them and we would draw unwanted attention. They were fighting a losing battle though, the internet was becoming an integral part of all our lives, it wasn’t a fad that was going to go away and around the corner lay the even bigger challenges of facebook and twitter. The first major concession that was made around this time was the modernisation of the website.
Storming the gates of heaven’s library
But it wasn’t just the flow of information that the party top brass were losing control of, it was also the monopoly of knowledge. Virtually everything that you could read on socialism was becoming available online. The Marxists Internet Archive (MIA) had opened the doors to a vast wealth of knowledge. Not only did you have access to the works of a host of Marxists who didn’t crop up on the suggested reading lists (some anarchists too), but you had access to less selective readings of the big names, you could read, in their own words, what Lenin and Trotsky really, no really, stood for. It was possible to find them arguing for the militarisation of labour, for crushing strikes and for one man management, way earlier than the outbreak of the civil war.
The power of a Leninist/Trotskyist central committee, particularly of the full timers always rests on three things. The first is democratic centralism, the second, the time full timers have to prepare their arguments and read up on theory while others are at work or college. The third thing is there access to and time to consume works of theory. A quote from Lenin or Trotsky was always handy to back up your argument, a knowledge of the workings of the Bolshevik party gave you a sense of mystique. Don’t get me wrong, from the time I was sixteen I consumed theory. My local library had a little Marx and the works of James Connolly. At university I devoured all the Marxist literature I could, along with a lot of French philosophy (I was studying philosophy after all) and the Frankfurt School. But you couldn’t compete in that regard for people who had been studying Marxism for 30 odd years.
But the internet changed all that. The MIA, if you put in the time, gave you the full picture, the lesser known texts, the other sides of the debates you had only read Lenin and Trotsky’s side of. It opened my eyes to unorthodox Trotskyists, left communism, council communism and autonomism. You could also read articles from other organisations with varying degrees of differing viewpoints. A now outdated website called broadleft.org had lists of links to organisation websites categorised by ideology and tendency. It was no longer ‘only our tendency’, it was the bloody library of Alexandria in digital form. And then, there was the anarchist FAQ which dispelled all those Marxist myths and told you virtually everything you wanted to know about anarchism.
In the old days, when you wanted to back your argument up with theory, you had to painstakingly search through weighty (and expensive) tomes, you had to write any quotes down on paper or type them out, maybe print them off. Today, with a vague notion of what I was looking for, I searched on the MIA and libcom for free and copied and pasted those quotes you’ve read over. Each one took less than a minute to find (though I stress, you probably need to know what you are looking for).
The quantum quantity of quality
Reading back over what I have written so far, it seems like there was some sort of steady progression of thought on my part, from my initial happiness with the organisation I was a member of, to the time I left; That is not the case at all. True, I had a few gripes, like the failure to see the potential of information technology and the poor excuse for what passed as political education, but I was, overall, a committed Trotskyist, loyal to my organisation (as quaint as that seems now). If anyone had said, in 2005, that in four years time I’d be an anarchist they would have been laughed at. Nor was information technology the only factor in my ‘conversion’, my experience became one of frustration with electoralism and doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, waiting for the objective conditions to ripen. I certainly hadn’t placed any importance in the internet in my change of views until quite recently, having read some of Paul Mason’s stuff and applying it to my own experience.
The 2007 general election was really the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the fifth election campaign I had been involved in and months and months of going door to door answering questions about who we would or wouldn’t go into coalition with and trying to explain why it was no one, while being unable to get a word in edgeways about socialism and building working class organisation, the reason I had joined in the first place, was soul destroying. I almost left at the end of the campaign, but Clare Daly, who was our candidate (now a fellow ex member), failed to win the expected Dáil seat, and I felt like if I left it would be put down to demoralisation because of that failure. But as I said before, you can’t unread what you have read and I returned to some of the ideas that had cropped up in those debates years earlier and explored the ideas of anarchism, council communism and autonomism. I believe that you don’t win people over with one to one discussion on the internet or in person, that it’s only when parts of those debates correlate with their lived experience that they revisit those ideas.
This of course coincided with something that was to change the way humans communicate forever, and thus qualitatively alter the ways it was possible to organise politically – the rise of social media. The way I was communicating outside of politics had altered radically. Whether it was organising to meet mates or something to do with the football club I was a member of, things were becoming more instant, more spontaneous. The old method of letters and phone calls seemed excruciatingly slow. Discussions with people outside the organisation proceeded at a pace that was like comparing faster than light travel to the steam train. Between SP meetings I could have had the equivalent of ten meetings worth of conversation with other people. The world was changing and so was I.
I hadn’t left yet though, there was one more election campaign to go, the 2009 local and European elections. I came back after a hiatus of about six months to participate in Joe Higgins local election campaign. He was also standing in the European elections for the Dublin constituency but the local was the main focus and it was generally agreed he didn’t have much of a chance of becoming an MEP. By now, those famous objective conditions had ripened, the 2008 financial crises had shook the world and the irish government’s austerity programme had begun. There had also been a modest influx of young recruits to the party, so I hoped that things would start to change, both outside the party in terms of working class engagement in class struggle, and within the party in terms of modernisation, digitisation and democracy.
A leopard never pixelates it’s spots
As it turned out, Joe Higgins won a spectacular victory in the European election. This was despite the vast majority of the party resources, both financial and physical going towards the locals. One of the determining factors was a forward thinking social media campaign run in the main by just two young members, Jimmy Dignam and John Geraghty (both now former members). They were allowed to experiment because the euros had only been seen as a publicity opportunity to keep Joe in the public eye before he attempted to win back his Dáil seat in the next general election (which he did). But as the election day fast approached and the polls came in, it looked as if something extraordinary was about to happen and Joe would win. This should have changed everything, but it didn’t.
Internally, the party was still the same beast. The full timers on the executive committee still ruled the roost, phone calls and letters were still the main means of communication. When there was dissent (and by dissent I mean someone coming up with an idea the executive didn’t agree with), instead of having the means to open up debate to the whole membership online, a full timer would rock down to your branch meeting and patiently explain to you and everyone else there why you were wrong. I don’t know why I expected any different and I don’t know why I cared because by this time I had been sufficiently infected by ‘alien ideas’ that matched up more accurately with my lived experience that I no longer considered myself a Trotskyist. It was time to leave and one night, about two weeks after my last soul crushing paper sale, I sent my resignation letter via email so I could avoid the awkwardness of the traditional ‘exit interview’. Ironically, about a month later, an anonymous party member misquoted my resignation letter back to me on indymedia.
After my resignation from the Socialist Party, I took some time out of frenetic political activity in order, to use that awful phrase, ‘find myself’ politically. In my resignation letter I had quoted the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta but by no means had I declared myself an anarchist. That came about through reading the work of Kropotkin, Malatesta and others, while at the same time delving deeper into other types of Marxism. It was the anarchist writers that resonated with my new found belief that the end does not justify the means, that the organisational structures we build to fight for a new society must closely resemble that society. Furthermore, the anarchist method of organisation seemed to make more sense in an era of open publishing platforms and online communities of debate.
But my ‘time off’ wasn’t all just reading theory. Where in the past such a break could have seen me drop out of political activity altogether, the use of social media to organise campaigns and protests meant that I could dip my toe in when I felt like it. After about a year I joined the Workers Solidarity Movement, an anarchist communist organisation that was well organised, had a reputation for effective activism and had embraced the digital age. That is not to say that the WSM or any anarchist organisation have overcome all the challenges posed by what Paul Mason calls the era of the networked individual. Some of our organisational structures for decision making, while measurably more democratic than the Leninist version, seemed slow and cumbersome, even while utilising some fairly recent technology. Andrew Flood will soon publish an article dealing with some of those issues on the anarchist writers blog and I will return to the question of anarchist organisation in part five of this series, as it will not be possible to deal with this question without first examining the way class relations have changed over the last two decades.
It is also not the case that the internet has made everyone who has left the fold of orthodox Trotskyism an anarchist. A significant number of other dissenters left the SP in the years after me, most of them are still active in some way, either in other Marxist organisations, broad socialist formations or not in any organisation at all. And the recent success of Jeremy Corbyn in winning the leadership of the UK Labour Party shows that info-tech has changed the game for virtually everyone. It is also an example of how the central command structure that was so successful for political parties in the past is falling apart. The Labour leadership used all their resources internally and through the mainstream media to prevent his victory but they failed miserably before the might of the users of social networks. The old guard of ‘New Labour’ rightly fear the disintegration of the old means of communication, but the new peer to peer variety will not be possible to tame for the left of that party either. The networks that made Jeremy Corbyn leader will also be the most consistent critics of that leadership, much the same way as the soviets that gave power to the Bolsheviks, soon became a threat to that power.
So too, here in Ireland we see how the campaign against water charges is the most spontaneous and dynamic campaign in the history of the state and the mainstream media are powerless to stop it. Methods of organising and resistance were shared via online social networks and were implemented by physical networks in communities that had barely any links with each other outside of cyberspace. And my former comrades have improved their engagement with social media in the meantime, if they hadn’t they would have struggled to reach the mass of people involved in the anti-water charges campaign, however, their internal command structure will not be able to withstand what is coming over the course of the next decade.
Whatever the future holds for left wing politics, for anarchism, and working class resistance, the movement of the future will not be built through paper sales and controlled rigidly by central committees made up of ‘socialist theoreticians’. The movement of the future will be more flexible and more democratic and when revolutions break out they will spread more quickly, more spontaneously. Political organisations now have to decide how they fit into that picture, but with or without them, there will be change. We are not afraid of the ruins of the old analogue society, we carry a new world, on our laptops, on our tablets, on our smartphones and in the cloud.
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