“I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure.” - Mikhail Bakunin
The contemporary anarchist movement throughout the UK, and indeed around the world, faces unique challenges.
This generation is faced with crippling austerity measures begun by the former Labour government and now accelerated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The economic crisis has provided political elites with a practical justification for ideologically motivated attacks on the working class. Efforts to “bring down the deficit” at all costs have provided the state with the necessary camouflage to manoeuvre into savage Thatcherite cuts to the public sector, education and social welfare, while also creating an incremental process of privatisation of the National Health Service, greater tax breaks for millionaires, tax cuts for businesses, as well as strengthening attacks on workplace organising rights. All of this in an effort to stimulate an economy that continues to stagnate, largely at the expense of increased poverty and mass unemployment, affecting most seriously women, the young and people of colour.
The stark realities of this situation are compounded by the fact that working life for British people is increasingly in economic sectors that are unorganised and casualised, or soon to be unorganised and casualised. This is while a traditional revolutionary ‘left’ movement has essentially embraced a position of defence and retreat, cuing the outdated appeal to its standard yet dwindling constituents. The anti-austerity movement seems content to seek only a defence of the concessions won by older generations, rather than using the economic crisis and a renewed interest in radical ideas as a means to agitate and fight for a fundamentally different society. In the various regional anti-austerity groups, the authoritarian Marxist left and trade unions have entrenched themselves in petty squabbles over either bureaucratic union organising - in unions that have become increasingly conciliatory towards the coalition government - or what level of support they should offer to the Labour Party, in some cases providing them with a platform at organisational meetings and rallies.
The reality is that the existing repertoires of the Left do not speak to the challenges the working class are facing or indeed with the experiences of the majority of working class people, focusing primarily on the minority of organised workers in privileged economic positions, namely employed, contracted or salaried, non-precarious unionised workers. These mediocre organising efforts have been complimented by reformist struggles such as the anti-tax avoidance campaigns, anti-workfare campaign, which lacks a focused analysis of the nature of work. Initiatives such as Occupy, although at least providing a base for opening the debate on austerity, equally lack direction and focus or a clear understanding of the nature and cause of the attacks. Admittedly the occupation movements in other countries have shown signs of radical transformation, but in the UK most organising efforts have been couched in a social democratic framework aimed at achieving nothing more than a defence of concessions and in some instances actually criticising offensive efforts to fight austerity in the context of anti-capitalism.
The models of activism that the Left rely upon are still tied to the mass struggles of the 1970s/80s - mass rallies, pamphleteering and paper sales, manoeuvring within political meetings. Yet years of Neo-Liberal reform since then have manufactured a working class that is de-politicised, de-mobilised and individualised. What is required in this instance is not intervention, but reconstruction. The Left are still seeking to lead and direct a mass of workers that, to put it simply, does not exist at this time. Some radicals may look longingly at the resistance in Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe and, falling back on classical Marxist economism, argue that it must get substantially worse to get better. Although the simultaneous rise in “political suicides” in these countries should at the very least lead us to question the wisdom of this analysis - do we want it to get that bad? Such a view ignores the sustained, politicised resistance that Greece, for example, has retained throughout the 1980s/90s, the combative nature of social struggles, a record of concessions won from the state (particularly amongst the students and youth) and a growing anarchist/anti-authoritarian movement that is active, visible and engaged with the communities in almost every urban centre throughout the country.
Our only glimmer of hope, in these years of austerity, has been in the brief but bright struggles of the youth and students. Only here was it possible to see the successful meeting of two cultures - of political militants and organisers (anti-militarists, anti-war campaigners and others politicised through Iraq) and the creativity and combativeness of a generation shut off from the comfortable futures of even their older siblings. By March 26th, when the TUC called its “Rally for the Alternative” in London, it had already become clear how isolated this demographic truly was, as direct action was taking place on Oxford Street thousands of trade unionists watched Ed Miliband in Hyde Park, a pro-austerity politician, play to the crowd.
Unfortunately, a lack of ambition is not just something endemic within the traditional Marxist left. The anarchist movement has also failed to make a significant mark on resistance to austerity, as well as building momentum towards a general acceptance of anarchist ideas and methods. Historically the anarchist movement has shown itself to be distinct from the left, but in recent years - throughout the UK - it has failed to promote the richness of anarchist tradition and history or separate itself from the inertia of the traditional left, becoming nothing more than an appendage to it, content with fulfilling a propagandist role, or at times acting as the more militant wing of the austerity movement when required.
The building blocks of an autonomous counter-power must consist first and foremost of an attack on the myths of austerity and class compromise and the building of confidence in self-organisation and direct action.
Where anarchists have been successful in the past they have been vibrant and integrated parts of working class communities. This means abandoning the terrain of both activism and the Left, and finding ways to speak to the experiences of, and more importantly finding ways of organising within those sections of our community who have, in many cases, already made the critical step of seeing through the illusions of representative democracy but still remain disconnected from politics.
Ultimately the objective of an autonomous and self-organising workers’ movement is to build unity. Such an aspiration, however, should not lead us to ignore both the conservative and privileged nature of certain sections of the workers’ movement as significant barriers to this goal. A minority of organised workers seek to defend concessions in secure employment, which in contrast to the majority of the working class is a particularly privileged position. Precarious workers, students, the unemployed and their communities have displayed in the last year a distinct sympathy towards anti-authoritarian methods and have sought to push a momentum towards offensive direct action. At the same time there has been an acute lack of political foresight, despite the breeding ground for widespread radicalisation. This has been a failure of the anarchist movement to capitalise on this moment and use these battle grounds as a framework to build on this distinct anarchist tradition and insert revolutionary anarchist ideas. This is an area in which we have fought before - the intransigent revolts of the underclass in Montmarte in the 1890s, the counter-cultures of Barcelona’s “Barrio Chino” of the 1930s and the rallying call of the Wobblies to abandon the conservative AFL and act as a pole for the excluded, abandoned and unorganised - it is an area in which we must fight again.
Collective Action: an association of anarchist communists
“If the revolutionary lacks the guiding idea of their action, they will not be anything other than a ship without a compass.” - Ricardo Flores Magón
“We also ask for discipline, because, without understanding, without co-ordinating the efforts of each one to a common and simultaneous action, victory is not physically possible. But discipline should not be a servile discipline, a blind devotion to leaders, an obedience to the one who always says not to interfere. Revolutionary discipline is consistent with the ideas accepted, fidelity to commitments assumed, it is to feel obliged to share the work and the risks with struggle comrades.” - Errico Malatesta
Collective Action has been formed by a group of anarchist communists seeking to understand and resolve the issues facing the anarchist movement and the working class. Having lost confidence in the current formation of the anarchist movement, we felt it necessary to regroup and rekindle our political ideas and activity in the context of forming a wider analysis of the current situation. At the present time we consider ourselves to be a movement orientated association with a focus on critically assessing our failings and the nature of future struggle. However, we aim to actively participate in current struggles with the long term objective of building towards the recreation of a relevant and viable anarchist movement that is able to insert itself into social struggles, winning the leadership of ideas and fostering the cultures of resistance. We believe that this process of regroupment is essential to that objective.
We identify anarchist communism as a political current with its roots in the federalist, anti-authoritarian sections of the First International. This has been a global tradition present in the revolutions and social upheavals of the past century. In contemporary terms we believe this particular tradition to be best represented by the specifist conception of social anarchism. This is a conception of anarchism with which we actively identify. Specifism can be summarised as:
•The need for specifically anarchist organisation built around a unity of ideas and praxis.
•The use of the specifically anarchist organization to theorise and develop strategic political and organisational work.
•Active participation in and building of autonomous and popular social movements via involvement and influence ("social insertion")
We consider an important aspect of specifism to be the idea of “recapturing the social vector of anarchism,” i.e. re-inserting anarchism as a current of popular organisation within social struggles.
We do not believe that specifism provides complete answers to the problems raised above; we do believe that it is a method and tradition that helps us to address and understand them more clearly (as well as being true to the original vision of social anarchism).
This is a call out to all independent anarchist communists who feel the need to understand more concretely who we are, where we are and how we move forward. While the association encourages people to join it and participate in this process of regroupment, our project is not about quantity, it is about quality. We do not aim to build membership, we aim to build coherency. We do not want to compete with other organisations, but refocus our efforts. We are a space for anarchist communists to address their ideas collectively and to build those ideas into a coherent strategy that is grounded in common struggle and united by the robustness of theory.
At present we collate our ideas and discussions on our blog and through our website, which will be published periodically in our journal Ninth Symphony. Our aim, through this, is to publish materials that emerge as relevant and meaningful to the anarchist movement within the context of our existing activity as organisers and militants.
- Collective Action