Translation: Georges Fontenis, the itinirary of an adventurist of the libertarian movement, part 1

Georges Fontenis: the itinerary of an adventurist of the libertarian movement – part 1 of 2

« Walking towards anarchy cannot mean renouncing anarchism through setting up a government of so-called anarchists. We need to tend towards what we want by doing what we can. »

Errico Malatesta
in Pensiero e volonta # 4, Roma, February 15 1924


Was there ever a character as sulphurous as Georges Fontenis was in the history of the 20th century French libertarian movement? The man who loves calling himself “Satan”, or “the Prince of Darkness”, the man who, only a few years back, during an incognito visit to the bookshop of Le Monde Libertaire, handed a check to the shop employee, saying: “From the devil’s hand”! Also the man who would see his name used to describe a sort of ideology, in a number of historical articles and books, as a noun “Fontenism” and an adjective “Fontenist”.

 

To evoke Georges Fontenis is no easy task, as an important literature, as diverse as it is passionate, exists on the subject. Many autobiographies and theses by academics, or by militants interested in the history of the movement treat of this character, and often the partisan argument contributes to create a myth about him.

 

Maurice Joyeux wrote about this in issue n°18 of the anarchist journal La Rue a long article precisely entitled “The Fontenis affair”.

 

As an introduction, he wrote: “For the last 30 years or so, there has been a myth among our people. This is the myth of the Fontenis affair.” Myth which is centered on a single man, whose presence among us was relatively short (6 to 8 years at most), and who only exercised his authority for half that time. For the successive militants, Fontenis was the “bad guy”, the “werewolf” of children’s tales, the “evil one” of the tragedy, the “Antichrist” which frightened off not only one generation, but also the following ones, who did not know him but who evoke him every time an ideological quarrel shakes our movement. The character did not deserve such an “honour” nor such consistency in this “classical” role which all human groups invent to discharge themselves from the weight of their “sins” and blame their own mistakes on “Satan”. I find this use of the Fontenis affair among some of our comrades to explain or justify their disagreements ridiculous. Using the “bad one” is nothing more than using the irrational, and philosophy has taught us that only in literature does it take the features of Goethe’s Faust when it is actually within us and that is where it must be attacked, instead of giving it a both seducing and anguishing face. And if, to exorcise the demon, we only have to talk about him, as the good fathers say, let’s talk about the Fontenis affair!

 

The thesis of a mythified Georges Fontenis, a sort of scapegoat for all the failures and divisions of an anarchist movement, the alibi of some of his travel companions who reject on a single man a rather cumbersome balance sheet, seems attractive. Because if Fontenis assuredly did play the main role in this play, nothing would have been possible without the blind obedience of his accomplices, nor the worrying passivity and light-heartedness of the militants of an organisation which claimed to be anti-authoritarian. Don’t anarchist say that where no-one obeys, no-one commands?

 

If this episode has such an echo and that the naming of Fontenis still generates among many militants feelings of worry and anger, it might be that it directly refers to a taboo, the taboo on the dangers of authoritarian and bureaucratic behaviours within the libertarian movement.

 

After this brief consideration, and from different testimonies more or less partial, as well as from the work of historians (academic and militants), let’s try, cautiously, to trace back the trajectory of Georges Fontenis.

 

From his first steps to his first responsibilities

To go back on the life and action of Georges Fontenis is mainly to trace back the complex evolution of the “libertarian communist” sensibility within the French anarchist movement from the aftermath of WW2 to our time.

 

He was born on April 14th 1920 from socialist and trade unionist parents. In 1936, he approaches the libertarian movement during the strikes of June and the Spanish Revolution. During a meeting on Spain organised in Noisy-le-Sec, he meets his first anarchist militants. He joins, soon after, a group of young libertarians who organise in Noisy and joins the Anarchist Union (UA). During the war, he becomes a primary school teacher, manages to avoid forced labour and joins the CGT and Ecole émancipée. This will allow him to take part in the commissions in charge of the purification of the National Education in 1945. In L’Ecole émancipée, he meets the anarchist militante Solange Drumont, who introduces him to the provisory administrative commission, in charge of the reconstruction of the anarchist movement and the organisation of a national congress. Immediately integrated into the commission, he is designed to organise communication among the young militants and becomes a member of the East Paris group. On October 6 and 7 1945 the congress of the libertarian movement takes place, and on December 12 the founding congress of the Anarchist Federation (AF) is held. Georges Fontenis contributes to the creation of the Federation of the libertarian youth and becomes its secretary at its founding congress. He is also in charge of making up the theoretical courses addressed to young new members. The AF quickly develops while Le Libertaire, now a weekly magazine, is printed by tens of thousands issues and is highly ranked among newspaper sales.

On September 13, 14 and 15 1946 the second congress of the AF is held in Dijon, where the pre-war divisions reappear and the conflict between factions gains in intensity. When the congress has trouble agree on a new secretary, Fontenis is, against all odds, proposed as new general secretary. As a new and irreproachable man, his youth, his status as a teacher, and the fact he is not part of any sides which are fighting each other quickly allows a large and unhoped for consensus: at 26 years old, he becomes the general secretary of the young AF and the publishing director of Le Libertaire. The same congress also decides on the creation of a self-defense committee. Kept secret, it was supposed to fight police, Stalinist or fascist infiltrations and intoxications and prepare the clandestine struggle in case of a totalitarian coup or a third world war. This commission will be during its entire existence under the responsibility of Fontenis, whether he is re-appointed as general secretary or not.
In 1947, Fontenis is re-appointed as general secretary after the third yearly congress held in Angers. He is then on unpaid leave from the National Education and can give himself full time to the AF and Le Libertaire, of which he becomes the permanent redaction secretary.
Georges Fontenis joins the young and energetic French CNT (CNT-f) and becomes the secretary of its education branch. In 1950, he leaves a declining CNT-f in crisis, and, still a member of L’école émancipée, he joins the National Education Federation (FEN).

 

The fourth congress held in 1948 in Lyon names him once again general secretary, this congress also decides on the creation of La Revue anarchiste, of which Fontenis is also responsible.

The same year, he takes part in an assassination attempt against Franco with some Spanish anarchists in exile. His role is limited to signing the buying certificate of a Norécrin tourism plane, which will be transformed into a bomber and flown by three Spanish militants, including the famous “general without god or master” Antonio Ortiz. The attempt fails by not much: at the moment they should drop the bombs stolen from a Luftwaffe deposit onto Franco’s house in the St Sebastien bay, two, then four, then 6 planes show up and force the Norécrin to flee. The attempt will not be renewed, Fontenis will later be questioned on this affair by the anti-terrorist police, who decided to drop the case.

The OPB and the infiltration of the AF

 

During the summer 1949 is held near Cannes, in a youth hostel managed by José and Renée Salamé, a “training session” grouping several libertarian communist militants and whose debates lead to the necessity of constituting a secret fraction. The Organisation Pensée-Bataille, named after a book by Camillo Berneri, is created in January 1950. The OPB is a clandestine organisation within the AF, it is based, according to Fontenis, on the “necessity of a highly structured organisation, joining ideological unity, tactical unity and class nature” in the aim of “ending the domination within the AF of the individualising and synthesist currents which made immobility and confusion prevail”.To do so, they need to fight and get rid of those who are deemed “muddy”, “wank”, “purists”, “verbose”, “liberals” in order to “transform anarchist movements as much as possible in the way of efficient and serious organisations defending a coherent doctrinal corpus” (OPB statutes). Alexandre Skirda, in his book Individual Autonomy and Collective Strength: Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to our times [Facing the enemy, AK Press] will claim that the self-defense committee, deviating from its original mission and using the secrecy around its functioning, constituted the birthplace of the OPB.

 

Fontenis becomes, since its creation and until its dissolution, its bureau secretary, also called “responsible of the plan”. People can join the OPB by co-optation, after an enquiry into the militant’s past and on a proposal of two godfathers. Its members are held to secrecy and the strictest obedience, with the OPB bureau verifying the strict application of orders, its statutes even precise astonishingly: “any active, suspended, excluded or resigned member must keep an absolute secret about the OPB and its members. Any failure to do so leads to the adequate judiciary measures by the OPB, which can go as far as killing in the case of a denunciation endangering the militants’ safety”!

The OPB quickly infiltrates every responsibility seat in the AF, every meeting, every congress is prepared beforehand and the OPB’s decisions systematically become the AF’s decisions.

 

The fifth congress in Paris in 1950 installs voting within the organisation on a one militant = one vote basis, replacing the vote by group, but positions remain indicative and do not concern the opposing groups. Fontenis remains the general secretary of the federation.

During the sixth congress in Lille, Fontenis claims he no longer wants to be nominated as secretary general after 5 years of consecutive mandates. Under the pretense of leaving space for the young, he proposes André Moine, a fellow East Paris and OPB member, who is nominated without problem. Actually, Fontenis is not giving up anything since, by the Lille congress, the OPB is fully operational and has placed and imposed its partisans in 8 of the 9 secretarial seats, while the responsibility for the peasant, worker and Libertaire reading committees are also held by OPB members.

In May 1952, Fontenis asked to meet with Maurice Joyeux, a member of the most numerous group of the AF, the Louise Michel group (Paris 18th arrondissement). The meeting, set in an alleyway of the Buttes-Chaumont, worthy of an old spy movie, was aimed at, without disclosing the existence of the OPB, test the attitude of Joyeux and the inevitable Louise-Michel group before the next congress. Fontenis wanted to offer Joyeux some sort of double-leadership of the AF: the intellectual leadership would be Fontenis, the worker leadership would be Joyeux’s. His refusal was going to, without him knowing, force Fontenis and the OPB to get rid of Joyeux and the Louise-Michel group.

In June 1952, at the Bordeaux congress, Fontenis and the OPB profit from the division to obtain a majority at each vote on every post and responsibility, while a “resolution on orientation and tactic, prepared by the OPB and amended til the last minute” of clear libertarian communist inspiration, is adopted. In October, a first schism among the opponents happens: exclusions are pronounced against Joyeux, Aristide and Paul Lapeyre, Fayolle, Arru, Vincey, etc. These militants then regroup within L’Entente Anarchiste, “an organ aimed at making contact, without any exclusivism, between federations, groups and individuals who identify as anarchists”. In its first issue, Raymond Beaulaton wrote: “The post-war anarchist unity was quickly broken. Two years ago, at the Paris congress, the system of consultation by vote was installed. In two years, this unity was broken.”

 

From 1952 to 1953, Fontenis writes in Le Libertaire a long series of articles under the title “Essential issues”, while, since the dismissal of Maurice Joyeux, he now also writes the paper’s editorials.

 

The creation of the FCL

 

The Paris congress on May 23, 24 and 25 1953 saw the end of the AF take over operation and the consecration of the OPB and its leader, Georges Fontenis. The last groups which refused to submit to the OPB’s political line are excluded (Asnières, Louise-Michel and Bordeaux). The AF becomes the Libertarian Communist Federation (FCL) by a majority vote of 71 mandates against 61 (the other names proposed being “Anarchist Communist Party” and “Libertarian Communist Party”!). From then on, members have to publicly defend the congress resolutions, even if they voted against them. The FCL thus reaps the fruit of the whole efforts of reconstruction of the anarchist movement since the Liberation: the newspaper, the shop on the Valmy quay and the treasury. The title of Le Libertaire, which becomes “the organ of the Libertarian Communist Federation” is now printed in red instead of black, symbolizing the rupture with the “old” anarchist movement.

 

In reality, the FCL only groups 16 groups and around 130 to 160 militants placed under the control of the OPB. Rapidly, the “collegial” character of the OPB is replaced by the authority of one, its commissary to the plan, Goerges Fontenis. The first tensions, which others will call rivalries, appear within the libertarian communist camp, including from the Kronstadt group, who protest the authoritarian excesses and the “Fontenist deviation”. In March 1953, they are excluded from the OPB (out of the 17 founding members of the OPB, only 6 are still members in 1954, including 3 people who are still the 3 same members of the bureau). The Kronstadt group published, in August 1954, an 82-page memorandum publicly denouncing, for the first time in detail, the existence of the secret group OPB as well as the Leninist orientation of the FCL. It will be excluded in turn of the FCL in March 1955.

Between anarchism and Leninism

 

Early may 1953, a compilation of the Fontenis articles published under the title “essential issues” is edited under the title Manifesto of Libertarian Communism. A barely modified version of this text will be adopted by the congress of the FCL a few days later as a “Declaration of principles” of the new organisation which will consecrate the new orientation of the FCL: “The specific organisation of the militants of libertarian communism considers itself the vanguard, the conscious and acting minority expressing in its ideology and action the aspirations of the proletariat…”

 

Jean Maîtron, in its History of the anarchist movement in France speaks, about Fontenis’ Manifesto of Libertarian Communism, of an “attempt at synthesis between anarchism and leninism”. Roland Biard, in his History of the anarchist movement, 1945-1975 writes about the Manifesto: “this text, under the platformist pretenses was actually an apology of vanguardism and contained a clearly Leninist orientation”. Alexandre Skirda, in his book already mentioned, questioned the aim of said Manifesto, in order to know whether it was aimed at the anarchist movement in order to bolchevise it, or if it wished to reach the worker militants, friends and resigned from the French Communist Party, in order to “anarchize” them. Which seems to be confirmed by the FCL strategy which, in january 1954, published a Worker’s programme, denounced by the Kronstadt group as a “pale copy” of the programme of demands of the CGT. This tendency to model itself on the French CP and the CGT became a constant leitmotiv.

 

This orientation is accentuated by Fontenis’ attitude who, as soon as november 1953, does not bother to hide his real views: “The libertarian communist doctrine is more accurately based on dialectic materialism than marxism’s political positions.” He also starts to take part in the Marxist magazine and collective Socialisme ou Barbarie, close to the council communists, with an article “Participation in trade unions” in the october 1954 issue.

 

In june 1954, a short-lived Libertarian Communist Internationale holds its first and last congress in Paris. Three countries are represented (France, Italy and Spain, as well as a few observers) but only one organisation, the FCL.

 

The issue of the creation of a new “Popular Front” or “Workers’ Front” is raised. In may 1955, along this line, Le Libertaire gives some space to André Marty, MP and leader of the French CP who has recently been excluded. In the same way, the FCL takes part, in july 1956, in a common meeting with the Communist MP René Bellanger and Le Libertaire publishes a “Call for front unity of the revolutionaries” with signatories from the FCL and the different Trotskyist currents.

 

The decline of the FCL
The militants and groups excluded from the AF quickly react: from december 25 to 27 1953 a congress is held in Paris, with 56 groups in attendance. It organises the reconstruction of the new AF (since the name has been abandoned by the FCL) and starts a newspaper: Le Monde Libertaire, the first issue of which appears in october 1954.

 

The FCL, which seized the AF treasury, headquarters and bookshop, and, above all the weekly Libertaire, survived until 1956 when it took part in the parliamentary elections of january. As soon as February 1955, the issue of taking part in elections is raised. A motion asking the following question: “Since the electoral battle has become a form of the social struggle, could we not envision this issue as an issue of tactic linked to circumstances and the realities of the social struggle?” is passed unanimously. In the April Internal Bulletin, a nine-page article signed F. (Fonténis?) and titled “For revolutionary practicism” claims: “We can take part in electoral struggles – we would then occupy not the role of law-makers, but of agitators. We see in this a form of agitation we should not leave aside.” The debate started and the May congress accepted the participation in elections with a rather large majority (only the Mâcon and Grenoble groups opposed it and left the FCL). With the parliamentary elections of January 2, 1956, the FCL presents 10 candidates, including Fonténis and André Marty. Le Libertaire was titled “The FCL enters the struggle” while Maurice Joyeux, in Le Monde Libertaire replies with a strongly-worded “The FCL enters shit”! In the end, the libertarian communist list got 2219 votes, that is, around 0.5% of valid votes while the electoral adventure cost a lot: on January 19, Le Libertaire mentioned that “the FCL owes over a million for the costs of the electoral campaign”.
A few militants of the Kronstadt group, excluded by the FCL, create the Noir et Rouge group and magazine in November 1955. They will create along with the Mâcon and Grenoble group, the Anarchist Groups of Revolutionary Action (GAAR). These same groups, and a few others, will join back the AF in 1961 as an organised faction, the Union of Anarchist Communist Groups (UGAC). “The aim of the UGAC is no longer to eliminate, like Fonténis, other factions by secret bureaucratic manouvring, but to lead, to constitute an active nucleus which should replace them in theory as in action” (Rolland, Le Monde libertaire, October 1962). Despite a rather laudable initial drive, their manoeuvres to access responsibilities as well as their publishing of a secret bulletin rekindle bad memories and quickly create tensions. Maurice Laisant denounced “an UGAC which acts as an external organisation which only joins to infiltrate and take over the AF”. Deemed a “Leninist-style fraction” by Joyeux, the UGAC, recognising their failure, left the AF in 1964.

 

The last important campaign of the FCL, which no doubt precipitated its end, was its unconditional support to Algerian independentists. In a kind of glorious last stand, the FCL throws itself entirely into the struggle, and goes from trials to Le Libertaire being searched, to militants getting arrested, including Pierre Morain, who will be imprisoned. Militants from the FCL will act as suitcase carriers for Messali Hadj’s MNA and Ahmed Ben Bella’s FLN (who will become the first president of the independent Algerian state). Between october and december 1956, Fontenis receives no less than 10 court decisions for complicity of public insults and diverse label against the police, the army and the state, inciting the military to disobey… He totals already 19 months of jailtime and 900.000 Fr. in fines. Le Libertaire, exhausted by the almost systematic searches and the fines, and having lost a major part of its readership, stops being published in jJuly 1956. The FCL is put to sleep never to wake up. A few militants, including Fontenis, go underground. In July 1958, anti-terrorist forces puts an end to his flight and, after a few weeks in a military camp, he is provisionally liberated before benefiting from an amnesty decree from the General de Gaulle about every crime concerning the Algerian War.

 

With the combined effects of the departures and exclusions of groups and militants who disagreed with the authoritarian and Leninist and vanguardist excesses, or, on the other hand, who were attracted to Trotskyism, of the disaffection caused by the pitiful electoral episode, and of the repression following the support to Algerian nationalist struggles, the adventure of the FCL ends.

 

Julien (group of Rouen)

Dating tips for cis straight anarchist men

1. Don’t date fellow anarchists.

There are many reasons why this is a bad idea. But if you like strong, feminist women, there are a lot of them out there, they might be more career-oriented than revolution-oriented, but deal with it.

Most women have a very special set of experiences linked to becoming anarchists. You are a young teenage girl, and you discover anarchism. You become very excited with it: why didn’t people tell you about it before? It’s all you were thinking, but better expressed. You start talking about it to people around you passionately. That’s the age you discover that a lot of men don’t give a shit about what you’re saying, they just like that you are talking to them. If you were advocating fascism, their attention would be exactly the same. You get the same impression when you’re leafletting. People talk to you not because they care about your politics, but because it’s the first time in weeks they talk to a woman who is not at work serving them or part of their family. It is sad, but also little to do with you.

Now, being comrades is a bond of trust I place much value in. And when you find one comrade that seems to be interested in the same stuff you are, and that you like doing actions together and it’s all great fun, it is extremely disappointing to then discover that really your ‘comrade’ was feeling all this as a budding romance, and that if you had been into other actions and mocking what you did, he would have scorned the same stuff he did enjoy with you. It’s just not a comfortable place to be.

2. Don’t talk shop in your free time.

If you do date an anarchist woman (or to some extent any woman), you’ve got to understand it is not okay to use the fact that she allocates you a larger part of her time to drill your important views on an issue into her. It is intellectual intimidation. If a discussion on an issue is coming up, and you have differing views on the subject try discussing it as much as possible in a larger group. And only alone together as long as both people are enjoying discussing it. Don’t bring it up and keep it up until she caves in and decides that yeah, sure, she’ll support your position. This is not a healthy way of spreading the word. Also, don’t feel betrayed when she pretends to agree to shut you up, then persists with her heresy at broader meetings.

3. Talk about your man problems to other men.

“Men don’t talk about their feelings”? Yes, they do, at length, and it’s a pain. It’s not that your partner does not care about your man feelings: the way you worked in the mines since age 10, learnt all the stiff-upper-lip nonsense growing up on the estate, had to strangle your kitten because it peed on a picture of the Pope, and had to give up your dreams of being a professional harpist after two lessons because your neighbour once mocked you. Well, yes we care in as much as we care about you, but the whole dramatisation around it is just ridiculous. You know, the whole “o no, I never talk about my feelings” five drinks later, sobbing on your lap about his entire lifestory. Accept it, you’re as self-absorbed as the rest of us.

I take my examples out of the worst working class coming of age litterature to stress the fact the “pressure to really be working-class” which sometimes exists among some anarchists really does not help. You want to be pro-feminist? Talk about your daddy issues with your dad, your men issues with other men, etc. Don’t dump it all on your partner because she’s safe.

4. Talking about your feelings is not always great.

So, you love feminism, so you think men should be less manly and open up about their feelings. All the fucking time. Tip: women also find it really hard to express what they are feeling. And they don’t care about your feelings all that much. The good thing about having a partner that often asks you how you are feeling, it’s that if she doesn’t, you know it’s because she is not wondering. Women are not free shrinks. You are not being a wonderful deconstructed man, you’re invading her space and her time and taking all her emotional and mental energy for your own selfish ends.

Let women lead the conversation! Why do men say that they are too manly to discuss feelings when actually they really aren’t? Because they don’t want to discuss it right now. A lot of behaviours can be explained as a way of deciding what is discussed when. Men are terribly good at that. However, your partner might have a different emotional calendar, and she might just want drinks and sex the night you decide to reconnect with your inner child, and want to discuss feelings and relationships the day you want to be all macho. She might even want to discuss feelings: with other people present! Even other men! Because the couple is toxic.

5. Don’t lead the conversation, don’t lead the relationship either.

You like her and you want her to know it, because you’re in touch with your feelings. Good for you. But don’t suggest to meet: her time and her space are sacred. Don’t be like “can I come round with the cookies I just made”, be like “hypothetically, if I made cookies, when would be convenient if you wished to have some, and would you like to eat them with me around, and if so where would you like this eating of cookies to take place”. Don’t impose things, even if they are good things that she likes like cookies. When you tell her about a concert she would like, just tell her about it. If she decides to go, she might invite you to go with her. Don’t be like “I have given you this information that is relevant to your interests, therefore if you want to go you have to go on a date with me!”

Anarchism and Fetishism

Fetishism is ascribing magical powers to an object. In Marx, it is used about money, commodities, work, etc. Money is the most common example: it only has power because we believe it has power, but we cannot free ourselves from it by refusing to believe in it in our society.

People often write about the Left being fetishistic, about having shied away from theory towards magical rituals. To name a few that you can read about: demonstration fetishism, picket line and union fetishism, Occupy, activism, class struggle fetishism, riots, fire and broken glass fetishism, fetishism in numbers, policy fetishism (and Safer space fetishism), Marx fetishism, standing in front of shops for full communism… Anything can be fetishised or be described as fetishism.

Opponents also ascribe such magical powers to the manifestations of the Left (belief that unions will bring about the collapse of the economy, that demonstrations will bring about the collapse of civilisation). However, Left fetishism can be more delusional than real. Whereas money can’t really be challenged, union authority can be ignored without much consequences in many cases. This leads to the label ‘fetishism’ being ascribed to anything which does not work, when it can actually stem from flawed theory, or bad execution.

Anarchism is supposed to keep away from fetishism through rational examination and the adequation of means and ends. We cannot fight alienation with alienated means, and all that. In practice, anarchists do subscribe to a lot of fetishistic attitudes. Sometimes they stem from Left fetishism: the idea that the Left will actually achieve something that we can somehow stir and make into our way to emancipation. Some anarchists think that fetishism can be empowering, or helpful, or at least completely inocuous.

If accusing someone of fetishism is seen as such an insult, it is very much because of the more usual term of sexual fetishism and the stigma related to it. Sexual metaphors are often used to describe fetishistic political attitudes “it makes them hard” “they have wet dreams about it” “they wank over it”. It is one of the rare occasion where sex negativity is wildly accepted by anarchists.

But, you didn’t speak about women?

I titled last article “More on Marx (and women) in anarchism” and then failed to mention women again. Not explicitly, but when you write about how to challenge Marx’s status as “heavyweight theory” and women have been predominantly told to stay away from heavyweight theory, you are doing some feminism.

This remark came from the “feminism” end of the anarchist spectrum, but it still feels like one of those “women should keep their place” kind of remarks. But yes, the last article was about my own experience with Marx, rather than “women’s experience with Marx”. Secret: I don’t know about women. I can’t generalise my own experience to all women or even to all anarchist women.

What are common experiences of Marx among women? I am genuinely interested, but here we find another problem: non-mixity never applies to anything remotely ‘interesting’. Men can only be excluded if we talk about things that would probably only gross them out and unsettle them (and gross us out and unsettle us). Women’s issues. Non-mixity on Marx? That would be unfair exclusion!

Non-mixity was not developed so we can talk about girl stuff. It was developed so that we  can gain some of the solidarity and networking opportunities that we are denied because we are oppressed and invisible. If there is one issue on which women lack people to network with, it is Marx, not accountability processes or rape culture (which are however top of the agenda of non-mixed meetings all around). Having non-mixed meetings is no victory at all if there are restrictions on their remit.

More on Marx (and women) in anarchism

Some people have pointed out that the last post was not as cheery as it could be, so I’ll try to be a bit more upbeat and constructive in this one. These remarks are valid to make generally more people apt in dealing with Marxist ideas and to solve that Marx-privilege problem.

1. De-mythifying Marx

Marx is really not that hard a writer to understand. People should not be as scared as they are to read him. But, further than that, we should move from a culture of reading to a culture of sharing. Quality debates and, generally, the oral tradition have been grossly overlooked. Accounts of how anarchism came to Spain in The Spanish Labyrinth should convince anyone that it is time to write less and speak more: an unreadable exchange of posts could be great theatre, as people tend to be a lot more interesting when the audience is present and is not something you can avoid by making the exchange troll out and never be read by anyone ever. That said, I personally am the worst orator, my heart almost explodes if I’m surrounded by more than two unknown faces, and I’m not alone in this case, so that is hardly a sufficient solution.

The move from books and academic articles to blogs is also a step towards greater accessibility. Breaking down issues into independent blogs can make people read through the same number of words they would never ever attempt in a book.

Then, also there is the issue of moving back from academic language to “normal language”. There is no word count on the internet, you can afford to make sentences that you don’t have to re-read 5 times to interpret. I say ‘back to’ normal language, because Marx is really not that academic at all: when he does create a new phrase, it is because he has lead to it and explained it for a while. Marxists might like to drop them like authoritative bombs into their own arguments, but Marx starts from simple to complex in a very reassuring way.

Marxist concepts can be handled accurately and with ease in every day anarchist speech.

2. Education material

There are books about books for people who are still afraid of tackling the Great Beard. I have no pretense to know whether they help or not. I know I was never able to understand Debord until I came across Jappe’s book on him, which made the obscure simple, and I think some people have a knack for that.

On the larger issue of economics (and not only Marx), AK Press’s Disassembly Required is definitely another book I would recommend.

An interesting (if ambitious) work is the Critical Encyclopedia of Capitalism, which proposes articles on Marxist concept (so far, Fetishism, Praxis, Separation and Commodity) and I’m ot only saying that because I owe Mr. Hemmens much gratitude.

3. The problem with most Capital 101

When selecting secondary reading, the problem is that they all pretend to be neutral, when actually they give one possible reading of Marx, often quite oriented.

For example (and I apologise to him because I still haven’t written back to him because I’ve been busy explaining important things to people such as why Robin Thicke was rapey and cisgender was a word), I found Wayne Price’s pretention to deal with Marx’s political economy (all of Capital + Grundrisse) a bit underwhelming when his book was actually mostly about Capital volume 1, avoided value critique and took “libertarian communism” to its most uninteresting acception of “more democratic Trotskyism”. He does not agree with my view of his work, and I’m sure he’s got a point.

To some extent, even Disassembly Required which I was proposing earlier has some bits (about Gramsci’s hegemony) that I found random and uncalled for. Any reading will always have to be taken critically.

But that’s it, rather than teach people about the truth of Marx, we must give us all the keys to be comfortable with Marxist concepts and ideas (not currents and parties), especially the ones developped by Marxist currents which exist mostly in relation to anarchism (communisation and Wertkritik).

Incoherent thoughts on being an anarchist woman today

I have been reading a number of biographies of Marx, to get acquainted with the context of his works. What struck me as un-anarchist in Marx’s elaboration of theory was obviously the subservience of everyone to his needs. Marx’s great quest to develop theory justified endless sacrifices from his wife, family and friends. Marxist political economy was not a collaborative work, but a highly specialised task, in which Marx did not have all the power (in particular, he was dependent on people taking care of him and funding him) but had all the intellectual and ‘moral’ power (his task was his alone and somehow invaluable to all workers). The “shoulders of giants” he stood on were not only the economists that had come before him, but the friends and family he was crushing much less figuratively. At the same time, I was wondering about anarchism’s relative failure to have theoretical output of quality, and how the refusal of such ways of getting things done could explain part of it (you know, the gentle way you kick out the “comrades” who periodically decide that what they are writing or doing is of greater importance to the cause than what you might ever accomplish, and that therefore they are entitled to living on your sofa, getting fed by you and generally using your energy and resources). Thinking about this, I stumbled (dialectically, one could say) on a larger issue: a fraction dividing anarchism today, which I think hinders its development and needs to be addressed.

Anarchist thought can be seen as a spectrum going from two extreme positions that are mainly strawmen that almost no-one actually defends: from the grossest workerism and devotion to class struggle politics to the most liberal identity politics. Along this spectrum, anarchists balance a vision of capitalism as it exists, largely based on Marx, and an understanding of systems of oppression. Although, in their theoretical intellectual framework both of these coincide quite happily, when you get to the material level and see how individual anarchists spend their time and energy, something starts to appear: people are specialised. Even though they read Marx and are very much interested in explaining capitalism as a system, women tend to spend most of their intellectual energy (discussions, debates, reading, writing) being concerned with feminism as well as intersectional politics. Discussions about Marx and explanations of the economic crisis are overall led and directed by men. With the notable exception of Rosa Luxemburg (and yes, there have been more recent examples), developers of Marxist and revolutionary political economic theory are men. Marxist feminism has long been the diversion for female Marxist scholars, the input of which is not negligible, just as intersectional politics today are an essential component of anarchism.

On the one hand, we have “heavyweight” “theory” which is commonly seen as dusty, old-fashioned, intellectually legitimate but too complicated for most people, useless, solely axed on class politics. On the other hand “liberal” “identity politics” which is new, fun, inclusive, post-modern, intellectually illegitimate, class-collaborationist. A lot of pointless conflict goes to show that one of these two caricature is good, and the other one evil and a lot of affect and emotion is invested in these supposed “sides” by anarchist, despite the fact that it is obvious that neither sides are anything close to anarchism. Our own gender construction pushes anarchist women to spend their intellectual energy on intersectional issues. Our comrades’ reinforcement also edges us that way: positive feedback on anarchafeminist articles, little or no feedback on contributions to discussions on capital. There is a perverse way in which men feel they are not “legitimate” to spend energy on feminism. That is, that they end up feeling more legitimate (than women), spending more energy on discussing capital. Also, as much as it is nice to feel that your input on a discussion on feminism is being valued, the contrast when you start talking about the economy is all the more striking and feels all the more violent.

In the privacy of my own intellectual musings, I am much more confident discussing Marx than discussing feminism. I completely share what men describe as their own fears about feminism and intersectional politics (fear of saying something stupid, not being legitimate, being oppressive without meaning to). Ironically, these are the fears that made me want to address those issues, to become a much better person, and although I was starting pretty low, I think it did a bit of good. But getting so much pressure to stick to this, and contrasting how people accept any unsubstantiated claim I make about something to do with women or minorities to the usual terribly oppressive “who are you to even dare speak of Marx” attitude I was brought up with, and accustomed to, makes me dizzy.

There is no doubt that Marx’s love of polemics, ad hominems and vicious fighting has been tolerated among Marxists for way too long. There is no doubt that organising talks like “in room A: a man will explain to you current theories on the economic crisis, while in room B: a woman will talk to you about intersectionality” has nothing feminist about it. We need to challenged the oppression of women has it materially takes place, every time a woman is cut short, humiliated or not given credit in our discussions of capital. Not by giving in in exchange for some spaces of peace and quiet where we can be listened to and valued, but never trespass on “real” politics. Anarchism has made some tremendous efforts in its inclusion of women, but the economy (as a system, not as it impacts on people’s everyday lives), capital and Marx are the last bastion of the dominant male discourse. Only by going against the flow and our own internalised misogyny, our judgement that some things are ‘too complicated’ or ‘too theoretical’ for us can we challenge that. As for men: many have learned to shut up and listen when oppressed people talk about their oppression. This socialisation as shy, unconfident, etc. is even worse when a woman talks about Great Things. But men’s effort to listen and shut up is much lesser (because of the discussion not being about the oppression of women, therefore men not having any feeling of lack of legitimacy). A lot of men, even great comrades that I value immensely, have two debating styles with me: on the issue of feminism, despite sometimes the weakness of my arguments, they are polite and engaging, on the issue of capital, despite sometimes (okay, rarely) the strength of my argument, they are dismissive and condescending. This will not do.

[This was written before I checked the 2013 Anarchist Bookfair programme, so no ill-intent was meant by “There is no doubt that organising talks like “in room A: a man will explain to you current theories on the economic crisis, while in room B: a woman will talk to you about intersectionality” has nothing feminist about it.” However, yes, there is a problem when you systematically “balance” one Marx meeting with an anarchafem meeting, namely: “class struggle and class consciousness” vs. “anarchafem conference”; “anarchism and marxism” vs. “stuff your sexist comrade”; “Marx and Harvey” vs. another “Anarchafeminism”]

Godwin’s law is totally as bad as Hitler (not)

Godwin’s law is a political, positive and useful idea: the idea that we should not tolerate hyperbolic comparisons to the Nazi regime. They do not help, and they show a lack of thought about the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust (Porajmos/Samudaripen).

But although it did have an effect on people being more careful about using comparisons to Nazis in appropriate contexts, it also had some unexpected fallout:

  • It has been extended to cases where a hyperbolic comparison is not being drawn. In the intent to ban any mention of the Third Reich ever.
  • It has been extended to cases where no-one has mentioned anything about Nazi Germany at all.
  • It has been used to delegitimise the whole antifascist movement in one fell swoop.

The first case, the case of people invoking Godwin’s law in the absence of a hyperbolic comparison, is well documented. In the worst case, it can be people hiding their negationist discourse behind it. Yes, it is worrying, but it happens: “you cannot say the Holocaust happened because: Godwin’s law”. I don’t write for negationists, however, but I thought it was necessary to mention. In better cases, it attacks people making “valid” comparisons. I am not a fan of “fair” comparisons to Nazi Germany, and I am not sure that such a thing exists, but such disputable cases should probably be granted more than a simple line on Godwin’s law. Last (and least), you have the case I was involved in last week: A discussion originally about “anarchism and language” got heated when I mentioned that “cisgender” was just a word (and not an intellectual bourgeois construct created to divise and confuse the working class), at the end of this discussion, I went back to the main thread, and mentioned that if people are interested about how language shapes society, they might be interested in Klemperer’s LTI (Klemperer was a philologist of Jewish origins who lived through the Third Reich and wrote about the changes in the language used in both the political discourses and everyday conversations). It was a side remark, to give one reference that is not Orwell on the matter of language and ideology, as no other had been suggested until then. Despite the fact the debate on the word cisgender was closed (I did mention in my post that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of cisgender being a word or not), it was apparently a sign that I had lost that previous argument, because: Godwin’s law. When reading about Nazi Germany is against Godwin’s law, an essential part of its reason to exist has been lost.

Today, I have seen this casual abuse of Godwin’s law taken a step further: a genuine case of self-fulfilling Godwin’s law, where people invoke it without anyone having mentioned the Third Reich in any way: a Scottish independentist blogger has tweeted transphobic things and refused to apologise. Some other Scottish independentist bloggers have talked about it. Some people have taken the defence of the first blogger, saying that yes he is wrong, but he is also useful to the cause, influential, etc. so should be cut some slack. I argued that it was better, and in the end more benefitial, to deal with these issues rather than let them fester “for the greater good” and defend people who you fully know are wrong. At the same time, another friend was sharing this article, and I saw some parallels. I did not want to imply the blogger who said some transphobic shit was an FBI informant, I just wanted to say that he was the one being divisive, and that people losing their time trying to cover him because he writes for independence were losing their energy and hurting their movement, in the same way that people who defended that guy until he admitted himself to have been an FBI informant had been losing their time and hurting their movement. This argument was taking place in a non-anarchist setting, where police informants are not the big bad monsters under the bed that they are among anarchists for understandable reasons. So I was not prepared to be accused of: Godwin’s law. Okay, the comparison did not hold in every aspect of the two stories, by far, maybe it was far-fetched, the simultaneity of me reading one article while getting notifications about that argument might have made me drawn more similarity than it should. But this was reverse Godwin’s law: by invoking it, this guy was basically saying that FBI informants are as bad as the Nazis. They are not, even if that is one of the very few good things that can be said about them.

Last, but not least this time, I have witnessed on French TV an attempt to use Godwin’s law to dismiss the entire antifascist movement. Antifascists were strawmanned by someone saying that they should not call themselves antifascists, as the extreme right groups and the state’s racist policies that they oppose are not Nazi Germany. Well that is true, but as the antifascists clearly explained: they oppose fascism ideologically, and that is why they fight things in our society which can unlock society’s resistance to fascism (extreme right groups, and, more importantly, the state’s racist policies and discourses).(Most) Antifascists (I’m sure you can find one) are not saying that modern society is the same/just as bad as Nazi Germany, they are saying they want to make sure nothing can ever be as bad as Nazi Germany ever again.

Well these were my thoughts about Godwin’s law, why it’s important, why it shouldn’t be abused. Please get upset at the title of this article, I’m afraid it is intended to be that bad.