NOTE: This is not a review of Paulo Gerbaudo's The Mask and The Flag: Populism, Citizenship and Global Protest, which is on my to-read list and which, as I understand it, takes a positive view of contemporary anarchist engagements with popular sentiment (which is not necessarily the same thing as the "anarcho-populism" I describe below). No, this essay is the short version of a longer work-in-progress in which I am debating these ideas with anarchist militants in places such as Catalonia. I will incorporate a debate on Gerbaudo's arguments into the longer version after I have read it; for the moment, I am cheekily using his cover to illustrate my theme.
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last”: the Populist Penetration of the Self-described Anarchist Movement
Against the backdrop of a global surge of crude populism that has overturned the hope of change announced by the Arab Spring of only six years ago with a dizzyingly swift rightwards rush that sees several brands of a neo-fascist “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born,” in the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats, a strange phenomenon has emerged: “anarcho-populism”.
Actually, this monstrosity seeking an unnatural birth is merely the latest petty front opened in the perennial political contest between a majority of militants and organisations who have the audacity to attempt to create functional direct democracies as in Rojava today – and their pouting immature opponents, those for whom personal desires are deemed superior to what working and poor people decide they actually need.
Against a far-sighted, modernist tradition steeped in the gritty realities of an implacable resistance to class rule and its derived depredations of empire, racism and patriarchy, a tradition that emerged among the mass trade unions of the First International fifteen decades ago and engaged in numerous attempts at constructing proletarian counter-power since, these know-nuttin’s raise a pastiche of self-fulfilment, ephemeral bravado and counter-revolutionary esoterica.
Today these dilettantes are weekend keyboard warriors, armed only with the middle-class luxuries of too much time to spend trolling on (anti-)social media, chasing political unicorns and indulging in a continually-shifting smorgasbord of boutique social causes – but with a visceral contempt for the oppressed classes that is deeply disguised by their pretensions to unearned legitimacy.
A shameful, shady history
We saw them in Italy in the 1880s in a self-described “anarcho-communist” tendency that talked insurrection but and eschewed workers’ struggles, and did little but produce incendiary newspapers, delaying the construction of an organised Italian movement until the 1891 founding of the Rivoluzionario Partito Socialista Anarchico (PSAR), a tendency that within fifteen years established the 80,000-strong anarcho-syndicalist Unione Sindicale Italiana (USI).
We saw them in France in the early 1900s, in opportunists like the “Apaches,” criminals of a childish, inchoate radical posturing – their name stolen from the armed resistors of an actual imperialist genocide – that achieved nothing and lead nowhere, their appropriations a bowdlerisation of nihilism that did little to impress the true nihilist revolutionaries of Russia, Japan, Cuba and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the anarcho-syndicalist Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) achieved 203,000 dues-paying members by 1906.
We saw them during the Russian Revolution when the “anarchist Jesuit” Apollon Karelin – the man who inducted Voline, who would go on to found synthesism, into his weird vision of anarcho-mysticism – first retreated from the class struggle to found an Gnostic sect that was a mishmash of pseudo anarchism and theosophy, and then, as a “soviet anarchist” found himself on the side of the Bolsheviks during the suppression of the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation, Moscow Anarchist Federation, and the 80,000-strong Russian anarcho-syndicalist movement.
We saw them during the Ukrainian Revolution in 1919, in the “tourists” like Nabat journalist Mark Mratchnyi who spent a mere week in Makhnovist-liberated territory before leaving and declaring with scant knowledge and zero understanding that the Black Army with its 110,000-strong force in September 1919 and its submission of its defence of the Revolution to mass plenary Congresses of Peasants, Workers and Insurgents was a mere “rebellion” without theory or constructive practices, and that there was no anarchist revolution under way.
We saw them in the Spanish Revolution in self-anointed “personalities” like the magazine journalist Federica Montseny who represented no organisation and no-one, yet who illegitimately inserted herself as a leader of the masses – where the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) in Catalonia alone represented 350,000 workers by December 1936. She and her cohorts undermined the Revolution more successfully than any fascist fifth-columnists by capitulating the hard-won power of the streets to bourgeois / communist / nationalist reconstruction of the exploitative capitalist Generalitat, and inevitably, of the national state.
We saw them in the "synthesists" of the Fédération Anarchiste Française (FAF) who demurred to assist their fellow anarchists of the Mouvement Libertaire Nord-Africain (MLNA) of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in fighting against French colonialism in the Algerian Liberation War – while those of the Fédération Communiste Libertaire (FCL) threw themselves into supporting the MLNA in smuggling in arms and uniforms, and acting as couriers for other liberation forces over 1954-1957 before the MLNA was destroyed in a vise between French ultra-right colonial and Algerian Islamic extremist forces.
We saw them in the “communitarians” who opted out of class struggle, as with those who joined literature teacher Luce Fabbri in leaving the Federación Anarquista Uruguaya (FAU) in 1963 to set up the inconsequential Comunidad del Sur during the critical phase of the defence of the insurgent Uruguayan workers and poor against a rising tide of neo-fascism and death-squad activity under the CIA-backed Operation Condor. For its part, the FAU went on to build the syndicalist Convención Nacional Trabajadores (CNT) which had 400,000 members, a Resistencia Obrero Estudiantil (ROE) front with 10,000 members, and its own 100-strong guerrilla force, OPR-33, by the outbreak of the Bordaberry Coup in 1972. We saw them in those who in the same breath condemned the FAU for supporting the Cuban Revolution, then condemned the Cuban anarchists who fled Castro’s repression against the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT) on the island.
We have seen them repeatedly in those who, facing decisive battles, skulked away from a proletarian revolutionary anarchist praxis, and who, facing defeat, avoided a rigorous analysis of that defeat as a means of attempting to ensure future victory for the oppressed classes. Instead, like pious monks, they hid away in relative comfort in musty monasteries that they termed communes – which were, without exception, swift failures – constructed a fetishistic cult around their own weak and anodyne bastardisation of anarchism and wagged their fingers at the masses whom they presumed to lead without being on the favela barricades, in the trade unions, in the peasant soviets, in the barrio assembleas, in the townships.
“Anarchism” as snake-oil religion
Slippery as eels, for they do not wish to actually confront concrete class conditions with constructive proposals for a free world, their carpetbagger philosophy – if it deserves the lable – is a noxious admixture of snake-oil religion, cossetted liberalism and duplicitous populism.
I have written about their religious sentiments before, in my 2011 book Cartographie de l’anarchisme revolutionnaire [link] in which I decry their impoverished pseudo-history of an “anarchism” that is “largely a martyrology and a museum-piece, a quasi-religious tragedy recited like an anarchist rosary… reducing the broad anarchist tradition to an honourable, yet failed, minority tradition of romantically doomed resistance.”
I argue that “This convention must be replaced with a far more internationalist, historically balanced and true narrative of the movement’s triumphs and tragedies, one that demonstrates its universal adaptability and its global reach, its overwhelming dominance in the organised labour movements of many countries in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, especially in the global ‘South’, its numerous revolts against capital and the state, its breakthroughs in fighting for labour rights, gender equality and against racism and imperialism, its several successful revolutionary experiments in building large-scale new societies in the shells of the old, its complexities, challenges and numerous arguments over tactics and strategies, and its multi-generational lines of ideological and organisational descent, as well as its current relevance.”
“Anarchism” as cossetted liberalism
The liberalism of these pseudo-anarchists is more than adequately eviscerated by Nestor Makhno and his fellow veterans of the Ukrainian Revolution in their 1926 Organizatsionnaia Platforma Vseobshchego Soiuza Anarkhistov: Proekt online in English here: “In every country the anarchist movement is represented by local organisations with contradictory theory and tactics with no forward planning or continuity in their work. They usually fold after a time, leaving little or no trace. Such a condition in revolutionary anarchism, if we take it as a whole, can only be described as chronic general disorganisation. This disease of disorganisation has invaded the organisation of the anarchist movement like yellow fever and has plagued it for decades. There can be no doubt, however, that this disorganisation has its roots in a number of defects of theory, notably in the distorted interpretation of the principle of individuality in anarchism, that principle being too often mistaken for the absence of all accountability.”
The text then explores the liberal roots of this rot: “Those enamoured of self-expression with an eye to personal pleasure cling stubbornly to the chaotic condition of the anarchist movement… [yet] Dispersion spells ruination; cohesion guarantees life and development. This law of social struggle is equally applicable to classes and parties. Anarchism is no beautiful fantasy, no abstract notion of philosophy, but a social movement of the working masses; for that reason alone it must gather its forces into one organisation, constantly agitating, as demanded by the reality and strategy of the social class struggle.”
“Anarchism” as duplicitous populism
Which leads us to the populism of these poseurs. Populism is a notable tendency globally at the moment, whether in South Africa with the Economic Freedom Fighters, in the USA with the Tea Party faction within the Republicans, in Venezuela under the “Bolivarian” heirs of Hugo Chávez, or the UK Independence Party’s influence on Brexit, or in Italy with the Five Star Movement. But it is hard to define, as this incomplete list makes clear: populism can either position itself as right-wing, or left-wing, but is in most cases a very sneaky and deceptive mixture of both. Neither fish nor fowl, its anti-oligarchic, anti-hegemonic, anti-elitist stance has appealed to the jaded and excluded – which is where the opportunistic opening towards anarchism occurs.
The real horror for many self-described “anarchists” today is not that right-populist tendencies such as that tiny, weird hybrid that calls itself “national-anarchism” misappropriated key aspects of true traditional anarchism such as decentralism and anti-statism – but rather that “national-anarchism” borrowed from “post-anarchist” / “small-a anarchist” tendencies their own much fetisished notions of subcultural semiotic rebellion instead of mass-cultural pragmatic revolution, and of ephemeral Temporary Autonomous Zone / Occupy “autonomy” from capital – a petit-bourgeois palliative illusion – in place of pragmatic, durable, working class autogestive counter-power.
In the final analysis, pseudo-anarchists are pissed off at “national-anarchism” for daring to steal their street-style black wardrobe! It is only *because* current pseudo-anarchists are so non-class-conscious – if not virulently anti-class – that the populist right is able to challenge the meaning of their iconography and in fact be entryist into their milieu. Is this a real threat? Sure – but not to the de facto “big-A anarchist” movement which, sorry David Graeber, embraces syndicalist unions with in some cases thousands even tens of thousands of members and which is thus inherently resistant to non-class pleadings. No, the real threat is to hard-pressed people within the oppressed classes themselves – and to a negligible extent to the street cred of pseudo-anarchists, who as outlined in repentant fascist Ingo Hasselbach’s book Führer Ex, have for decades been almost indistinguishable as street thugs from their neo-Nazi opponents.
Occupiers of Nothing
I visited Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and was unimpressed, not only at the lack of any actual occupation of anything other than an already publicly-owned park, but at its murky populist politics of confused outrage aimed at the “1%” (as if significant class layers of the 99% remainder are not beneficiaries, if not enforcers, of one-percentile rule). I might want to make the point that the Western so-called Occupy movement, which is the exact opposite of the Arab Spring in that it *occupies nothing* except already-public spaces such as parks (there was no attempt to actually occupy capitalist offices on Wall Street) and which as a result *moves nothing*, takes as its myth their membership of the 99%, a pseudo-anarchist and pseudo-class position which firstly ignores the state & capitalist overseer role performed by the middle classes from which most of their membership is drawn, and then secondly individualises the problem of state and capital to a tiny 1% enclave of super-wealthy parasites: this is not a systemic class critique, but it is instead the exact same middle-class complaint against a narrow speculative sector of capitalism that was so widely voiced in Germany in the 1920s and which gave so much fuel to the Nazi fire.
Occupy, with its ineffectual, pale liberal imitations as in Johannesburg – so different from the powerful street displays in cities such as Barcelona, Tunis and Cairo – showed how quickly the chants against the 1%, could easily segue into chants against “Jewish monopoly capital,” and so one found “American” nativist neo-fascism comfortably gaining ground in the Wall Street crowds. Then late last year, the detritus of those confused crowds transmuted into an electorate that shocked the liberal oligarchs and consonant anarcho-pundits by backing Trump.
I used to quip that the distance between Stalinism and Thatcherism, as the vulture flies, was very short. But now I could equally say that the distance between “anarcho-populism” and triumphalist Trumpism is similarly brief. This is not to say that “American” self-described anarchists are Trump supporters, which would be nonsense; just that they are unaware that their own lack of a clearly – and definitively anarchist, not identity – politics makes them ideal points of entry for the populist ultra-right.
So, is there an “anarcho-populism”?
I have already sketched in outline the damaging history of the marginal individualist / lifestylist tendency on the fringes of the mass anarchist movement, and this tendency’s uncomfortable familiarity with the themes of right-wing populism. This tradition continues today and possesses the following elements that are either compatible with – or even derived from – the populist milieu:
a) A post-modernist anti-class ideology that denies the lived experiences of the working class, peasantry and poor, and which is entirely at odds with the true anarchist movement’s analysis of class as the spinal articulator of all other oppressions – and its substitution by an identity politics that atomises social struggle, while not only giving equal importance to vital and silly life experiences, but also essentialising social constructs such as race, a key formulation of the racist right;
b) An anti-organisationist position that denies the necessity for mass organisations and all of the hard work and responsibility that implies towards the communities within which such organisations are built, in favour of a “tyranny of structurelessness” run by ineffectual, irresponsible groupuscles that have the ability to evaporate and make good their escape after doing damage to host communities who sheltered them but to whom they owe no social allegiance;
c) The substitution for a very clearly-defined transnational, pragmatic, proletarian revolutionary praxis by a vague anything-goes radicalism, with all the “ultra” posturing that entails, the result of which is a fetishising of subcultural semiotic rebellion and of ephemeral experiments in playing at being free of capital and the state instead of attempting to build durable working class autogestive counter-power;
d) An anti-intellectual anti-rationalism that poses as anti-elitist yet which actually retreats ever deeper into a thicket of impenetrable words and arcane, exclusionary subcultural practices in order to try and put themselves beyond the reach of the organic intellectuals of oppressed classes which have a century-old tradition of rationalist education and intelligent analysis and debate in the fields, in the tenements, on the factory floor;
e) A shrill, sub-Stalinist means of manipulating debate by disallowing uncomfortable questions – especially those directed at their vague positions and lack of mandate – in favour of a witch-hunting style that disempowers all but their own inquisitors on the most spurious of grounds, establishing a lynch-mob mentality that shouts the loudest in public spaces where transient emotion is held to be superior to detailed knowledge, where thin skin and ersatz outrage is the currency of their avoidance of engagement; and
f) A romantic, countermodernist sentiment that harks back either to an imaginary mediaeval Hashashin’s paradise or to the Garden of Eden itself, a primitivism that denies the positive side of the advances of science, rationality and technology in alleviating harm and suffering and advancing human rights and equality, and which in its most extremist version openly advocates for “voluntary human extinction” – a totalitarian genocidal impulse that would horrify even open neo-fascists.
If any of these things appear virulently – or surreptitiously – to assert themselves as somehow “legitimate” within the anarchist movement, then, friends, we have identified the same plague that Makhno did: there is a Trojan horse in our midst.
Against the “mere anarchy” of the Svobodniki
The Russian revolutionary anarchists called themselves Burevestniki, literally “announcers of the storm,” Stormy Petrels, free-flying seabirds that rode the storms of the revolution, a term which was later adopted by the revolutionaries in Spain – in opposition to those who Nestor Makhno called “startled crows” and who the Spaniards called “woodpeckers” but who termed themselves Svobodniki, a medieval rank meaning “Lancers,” those drawn from the lower nobility who had greater freedoms than the common people – including the right to own land and serfs. In other words, the Burevestniki positioned themselves as those who engaged directly in the revolutionary struggle of the day, with a weather-eye on the future, while the Svobodniki, in the manner of modern populists, instead harked back to an idealised lost world of privilege, a “freedom” that actually had been based on the exclusion of others. These self-descriptions are incredibly revealing, but given my list above, I wonder if it is better just to call the latter and their “neo-anarchist” imitators the “antis”: know-nuttin’s representing no-one but themselves, who build nothing except their pretensions to personal freedoms, at the exclusion or even expense of the oppressed classes.
The signature phrase of Yeats’ potent anti-war verse, The Second Coming, “Things fall apart,” was adopted as the title of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1959 work about the difficult (after)birth of postcolonial African society – and the terrible denouement of masculinist and imperialist dominance on African culture. However, both Yeats’ and Achebe’s visions of unchained chaos were predicated on the old bourgeois negative notion of the meaning of anarchy: “the centre cannot hold / mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.
In the fantasies of the work-shy pseudo-anarchists who oppose real, constructive, lateral, federative freedom, and a real direct democracy built, maintained and defended by the oppressed classes, Yeats’ negative “anarchy” is turned on its head as a positive virtue – but only to endorse unrestrained self-indulgence. What these “anarchists” appear incapable of seeing or unwilling to admit is that their adoption of this vacant conception of “anarchy” has allowed their politics to be defined by our class enemy, the parasitic elites: “The bourgeoisie say with horror that we are chaotic – so hurrah, we are chaotic!” Not only is this conception sterile and shallow, with no roots in the historical anarchist movement that challenged bourgeois power en masse across much of the world a century ago, but it perfectly coincides with the populist and neo-fascist practice of blurring and obscuring ideas to enable the confounding of the masses.
In the final analysis, yes “anarcho-populists” exist – though many call themselves “neo-anarchists,” “post-anarchists” or “national-anarchists” – and they are on the same side of history as the right-populists and neo-fascists, that “rough beast” that expects a supposed “clash of civilisations” in the Middle East to be its cradle. Standing against this “blank and pitiless” idiotic vision so terribly expressed by the Islamic State are many positive forces, especially the Kurdish People’s Party (PKK) and its International Freedom Battalion which includes anarchist fighters in its ranks, and in no small measure my own mass-organised revolutionary anarchist tendency in whose vision “mere anarchism” is in fact the bulwark against Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” and the defender to the death, in Rojava not least, of his “ceremony of innocence.”