A Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, by Cindy Milstein

A Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations, by Cindy Milstein

Few books gave me more hope than Cindy Milstein’s Anarchism and Its Aspirations. It kept me going through the past few translations, which had to do with some serious failings of anarchist organisations, and so I decided to recognise its merits here, if only to have something positive to say for once.

I am pretty cynical, and Milstein’s book is very much on the hippyish side, but the second thing I noticed is that it is refreshingly not anti-intellectual. She does not reduce everything to a dry list of mass movements (as geographically varied as possible) : she brings in Buber, Marx, Adorno, Arendt in a simple and unpretentious way when and where relevant.

Gustav Landauer is given a place of choice, which I think is a first for an introductory guide to anarchism, and she does not fall in the pitfalls of caricaturing the sides of so-called important issues within the anarchist movement, something which makes most introductions to anarchism make anarchism look like a collection of irrelevant strawmen. It portrays it much more organically and accurately.

It also develops the late twentieth early twenty-first century developments in anarchism, which is garanteed to give you a few Proust’s madeleines. Mine was when I read the acronym APPO, which I can’t remember having read since around 2007. Even though I have been loosely keeping in touch with more recent news from Oaxaca, I had completely forgotten what APPO meant to us, the so-called CPE generation (or at least to me). The example that the ideas I cherished could work, now, on a much larger scale than I would have dreamt (on a much larger scale than was ever actually the case in Oaxaca very probably, as internet news and rushed, enthusiastic translations were not always the most reliable).

I could not judge of its value as an introduction, but it was a much needed breath of hope.

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.

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”]

Translation: The Difficulty of being an Anarchist (part 2), by Christian Lagant

[Trigger-warning: ableist and sexist language.]

Noir & Rouge n°18 (March/May 1961)

The Difficulty Of Being An Anarchist (part 2)

As I attack this second (and last) part of the article published in the last issue of “N&R”, I think I need to define or even redefine a few points, so that some comrades do not take what is only a series of observations and reflections for I don’t know what panacea, miraculous remedy to all the ails Anarchism and above all Anarchists are suffering from…

We must, decidedly, lose this bad habit of demanding an already chewed, even digested, work, and if the difficulty of being an Anarchist has multiple reasons, one of the main one is also (after a progressive “physical” numbness the effects of which we all feel) this kind of moral laziness to which we unconsciously got used: why figure it out for ourselves when some brilliant thinkers will raise (as we say) issues and solve them for us. This very important aspect of the question which preoccupies us will be detailed during this article, by the way, but we can already see a practical manifestation of it in the fact that several comrades, believing they were being nice to me, write or say this, more or less: “Your thing was very good! In the sequel, you’re going to give us “concrete” solutions, aren’t you? etc.” In no way do they discuss this or that argument, attack this other one, say why they agree or not, in a word, to help in the research of difficulties which are, after all, ours, and concern, in that sense, more than one individual, that is, the person who wrote the article, no! They say nothing, or, what is worse, they accept all with trust and wait for “the rest”, which would be the ideal solution for Anarchist organization, no less.

If that is what readers are hoping for with this article today, they strongly risk being disappointed, since the object of this article was clearly noted in the first part: a simple reminder of our principles, the value of which we learnt to appreciate by living as a militant, nothing more. What principles for action to follow? Up to the comrades to discuss among themselves an effective application, but we wanted, for now, only to raise the moral problem, the problem of Anarchist ethics, the determinant role of which we realized in our everyday actions…

On organization…

In trying to define a few things, I realize we have already started to talk about the big issue of “organization”. Well, let’s finish on this issue before going any further. If some comrades wait silently, others start up on the contrary at high-speed and send awesome projects of organizations, all (or almost all) is already planned in them, and we feel like crushed, vaguely worried, facing the grandiose process triggered by a few lines. Something a bit like being The Sorcerer’s Apprentice!

But then again, this reaction proves a misunderstanding of the first part of the article, which insisted on this idea, which was supposed to be, in the end, a tautology: “we can create the most perfect organization and call it Anarchist. No use: if the members of this organization do not really act as Anarchists, it will be all you want it to be, but not Anarchist“. Starting from this principle, to create an organization before creating the Anarchist man (sic) is like building a house by starting with the roof, the walls and foundations being an afterthought. This might lead to slightly awkward buildings.

We could object that this is insisting too much on simple obvious facts and that everyone understood this long ago, when time is running out and we would better build the powerful Anarchist movement that needs building!

At first sight, this argument is impressive and has this “concrete” style which makes so-called activists agree, the people who “do” things (sometimes even anything at all) and think later, once the mistake is made. Even then, if there only was a reflection after each mistake, this would not be too bad, but that is exactly what worries us: we are not at all sure that the as obvious as these observations are, they be truly understood by a large number of Anarchists, and that is serious! If they were understood, we would not so often see comrades go back to organization issues with some kind of impatience, they like to talk about structures but nearly always forget to talk about the quality of people and concentrate on quantity. Do I caricature? How many times have we heard, and will we hear again, a sentence of that kind: “Recruiting one or two guys every so often is good, but we would be more efficient to get 10 or 20 in one go!” said with the best of intentions in the world originally, yet the consequences of this can sometimes be dangerous for the Anarchist movement itself. We will see why later, each thing in its place. But I do not wish to end this paragraph without answering people who are in a hurry to “bring people in”, that each person led to Anarchism and strengthened in Anarchist ideas is already in itself an incomparable victory and gain, and that after all a single valuable Anarchist may be more useful to the progress of the libertarian ideal than a dozen individuals we gave an Anarchist make-over to, it depends how you see it…

On the other hand, if we had all well understood (or remembered) the basic ideas of our doctrine, we would not see this strange distaste which many Anarchists manifest in learning from past mistakes, not to pour ashes over our heads in any kind of masochism, but to consider them with lucidity, these mistakes, almost coldly I would say. Of course, the same historical situations do not always repeat themselves and what was valid in 1936 might not still be in 1961, but I maintain there are a minimum number of elementary mistakes we should not make again (as I have suffered their ill-effects!) if we want to be taken seriously, or, what is more important, not to be taken for people driving almost knowingly new comrades into failures that we knew were inscribed in certain behaviours or methods. We do not have, we no longer have, the right to disgust young people from Anarchism (and the policy of “closed eyes” leads directly to this) to help our own little self-image! The undeterred quest for this truth should lead all comrades with any experience of the libertarian struggle, having seen both its good and bad sides, to help with a task which we could call demystification within the Anarchist movement itself. I realize that talking of demystification to qualify the mistakes and weaknesses of Anarchist “self-critique” can seem harsh, but I cannot see any other word!

As far as we are concerned, that was the aim we had set ourselves when we created Noir et Rouge, and we follow it and will follow it (rest assured) with all our strength, even if our means are more restricted than we would wish for. The pursuit of such an aim, both modest and huge, demands that we always speak clearly to comrades, without concessions, not to play any moralizing role, but to precisely draw conclusions together. We know that this will force us to face once again some unpalatable truths, the ones we do not speak about and it is easier that way, realities that a form of Anarchist shyness have made “taboo” (for example, let’s remind us how we were driven to dedicate a whole special issue of our journal (1) to an issue on which too many libertarians kept, according to us, a prudent silence: free-masonry), but we think that acting that way is necessary in order to move forward. And we will come back, as many times as we see fit, on what seems to us worthy of being examined, meditated on and learned from, something that is not always easy to bring to the common experience.

Let’s finish on this issue (that is, that the two articles on the “difficulty of being an Anarchist” will not lead to an organization system but to ethical elements without which it seems vain to build any Anarchist organization at all) by making the precision that the “technical” organization part is not in our opinion to be ignored, we have already seen several aspects of this issue in past issues of “N&R” (minorities/majorities, problem of the party, as well as some “classic” texts such as the opinion of Maria Körn on organization, etc.) and we will certainly have the occasion to go back to it in the future. But this quest depends as much on the effort of our reader-comrades as on ourselves since such works are to be made collectively.

To study is not to condemn

We have seen, in the first part of this article, that the greatest difficulty of being an Anarchist does not come from a fault in our ideal (although some Anarchists believe that, and ask false-problems about this) but from a fault in our conviction, which is often resolved in a more or less pronounced abandonment of libertarian ethics. Following this observation, a question remains: Are Anarchists worthy of Anarchism? A question to which I personally answer: No, many of them are not.

Of course, our permanent struggle against a gangrenous society makes for a lot of weaknesses (see on this issue the letter from a comrade from Brittany which we publish in the “readers’ mail” of this issue), and we never had the pretentiousness of being perfect or even “good” (we do not fight against something “evil” or “mean” because we are any better or have been touched by grace…) because we do not believe in the original evil or goodness of mankind, because first of all we do not give a fuck, but also because humans are dependent on other humans, therefore on a group and on psycho-economic conditions which equally determine their lives. Okay, but alongside the social factors mentioned, revolutionaries in general (Anarchists or not) still have a line they follow, which can be called by example a sense of justice (or injustice) and will have, whatever we say or do, a direct relation with moral behaviour. Since Anarchists place a special value on the individual, and Communist Anarchists and other libertarian communists are no exception in the matter (yes!), it is normal to look into and fight any deviation of our behaviour, which is not condemnation or intolerance but a task just as necessary as selling the newspaper, organize a talk, put a poster up. The progress of our ideas is made from the sum of all these little tasks.

Not worthy of Anarchism? I reminded people, in the first part, that a brilliant speech, if it can have some use, is not always worth the simple lives of less “gifted” comrades and that the latter often give us a better example and more comfort than the prettiest theories, the kind we only apply on special occasions. Lastly, rigour was mentioned, a rigour towards ourselves and which can only lead towards a serenity (no excitement but no excessive disillusions either) needed for good Anarchist work. The last few lines announced other aspects of the moral issue posed by Anarchism and its everyday application. We will examine one of these aspects, one of the most important but also most subtle ones.

The issue of the “leader”

Leader: The most visible person in a political party or a competition.

Normally, there should not be an issue of “leaders” among Anarchists, at most some comrades who take more initiatives, who are more dynamic or hard-working, without taking themselves seriously for that. It is unfortunately because this serious deviation also exists among us, a deviation which is directly related to ethics, that we think it is useful to spend a long time on it today.

I mentioned at the start of my article this “moral laziness”, let’s imagine that I am being over-dramatic and use the word “resignation”, yes, it is rather that: way too many comrades “resign” in front of others more gifted for speech or writing, in the sense that they dare not speak a word or write a line for fear of ridicule, of being “basic” faced with the “intellectuals”, or those who think themselves so. Has it ever happened to everyone of us to hear, after an assembly, a meeting or a discussion, a comrade confess: “I would have liked to say this, I did not agree on that, but what do you want, so-and-so is too “strong” for me, they would have countered me all too easily!” And the companion left without a word, when their intervention might have been very interesting for all…

But resignation from speech or writing, if it is already a serious issue for an Anarchist, is nothing compared to the moral resignation which can take over some comrades faced with an elite “thinker”! And one of the greatest dangers for the libertarian movement and idea is, in my opinion, this facility that we can have over time to let comrades, as intelligent or educated as they might be, think for others. And please do not come back at me with the silly argument, as a very famous comrade from the libertarian movement once more or less wrote to me: “You despise elites, it is the triumph of dilettantism and youthful self-congratulation over academic knowledge and the experience of the long-term militant!” I cannot guarantee those were his exact words, but we can easily see what our outraged opponent was leading to, in his heavy boots… As we say, no one is more deaf (sic) than when they do not want to hear, and here we have more: a half-deaf person who only hears what they want to hear, even if it is the opposite of what we said! We have for our part had our ears too often assaulted with such arguments, and they have already made too much damage within our milieu for us not to immediately respond, clearly, once and for all: it has never been for us about denying the real value of this or that comrade, we are the first to study and value the heritage from the great theorists of anarchism, a comrade is for us an “elite” (if you love this word) insofar as their life and knowledge (and the way he (sic) makes other share them, a way which is conditioned by a spirit) teach us something, but they are not an “elite” because they claimed to be, sorry for them! We will never be impressed by the fact that so-and-so has hundreds of theory books at home, or even that they read them, if they cannot tolerate that a more obscure or younger comrade thinks differently than them and above all dare to tell them so!

We can see that going against the invasion of the “leader” does not mean denying abilities or knowledge, it is actually exactly the opposite, and those who pretend not to understand it nevertheless still know it well…

The fact remains that relying blindly, or more simply with excessive trust, on a better-trained comrade is in itself a dangerous behaviour and anti-libertarian to an extent, as it is delegating our thinking faculty (our ability to gain consciousness) to someone else and unconsciously it is to choose a boss. We will admit that as Anarchists, we should be following other paths!

But, the “leader” is then? Yes, it is then the comrade faced with an audience that is too respectful or passive and which will give him a feeling of power, and who will do nothing to fight this state of affairs, of course, it is so nice! He is, let’s say, the potential “petty chief” and essentially different in that regard from the experienced comrade simply sharing what they know with others. Because we can object that not everyone can have the same abilities or more simply the same experience of the movement and of Anarchist ideas, that there will always be people who are more easily influenced, and others with stronger personalities, and that older militants need to take care of younger ones, that’s a fact. But that is where some elementary mistakes are made that should no longer be made.

I think that a comrade asked to make a speech in front of a group of militants, even more so if they are young militants or even sympathizers, must always keep in mind that if what they say is interesting, it is a hundred times more interesting if the audience takes part and, for this, they can always say: “did you like what I said? Thanks a lot, but do not believe you’re out of trouble yet! You won’t always have a conference-person handy, and you will have to share what you learnt with other comrades, if you have learnt anything this evening, for example. There must be blind-spots, defaults in what we have just seen together, do not hesitate to question and criticize me. Do not form the habit of relying on a single person, that is how we form militants without consistency on one hand, and authoritarian individuals on the other…”

Of course, this is not about giving fail-proof recipes, but we can in any case try to do, if not better, at least less worse, even if humans have a few weaknesses, as we know! And we will never say enough times that the leader, and the special state of mind that comes with them are born from the adulation towards those who speak “too well”, from which we can see that authoritarianism and weakness are closely related, one stemming from the other and vice versa. It is wrong to pretend (let’s take a “historical” example!) that the young leader of the first AF, who became then the quasi-boss of the Libertarian Communist Federation, deviated in such a way because he was “authoritarian”: he also become such because the young militants that we were were not careful enough and because militants, who were full of experience however, “pushed” him too much when he started, turning a blind eye for “intellectual comfort” to some of his faults, even if it meant they played Pontius Pilate or the saviours of the situation afterwards! That is a fine way of taking our responsibilities!

When I say at some point that there are a number of mistakes not to make again, I think especially of the issue of the “leader” since we witnessed, imperceptibly, comrades who had to speak in front of larger and larger audiences get caught in the game of their own oratory talent… They were the kind who thinks that talking to a few comrades, it is all well and good, but to be “efficient” we need to speak to many more people and, of course, they ended up very well accustomed to have a customary following (or flock) around them, instead of worrying about knowing whether those who listened to them were gaining consciousness and not becoming, more simply, good robots, with a minimal Anarchist training, only good to put posters up or sell newspapers while the “masters” make speeches…

Imaginary portraits

If the leader can have different “styles”, one thing is unchangeable: the ownership instinct. And isn’t it sweet to hear with what paternal pride he speaks of “his” group! He would almost say “his” militants, but yet, he dares not. One detail: we can be sure that he will turn the spotlight on him in every occasion, exalt the heroic acts of a wonderful past… to which he is the only witness. When he is conscious of having been too far in his lack of modesty (damn! consciousness!) he will always find a good “companion”, expert in shoe-polishing, who will make his merits shine stronger. The leader knows how to manage his advertising.

The “styles” of leaders are however very different and can go from the majestic serious of Mr. Homais-Anarcho [Mr. Homais is the pharmacist in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary] to the frenzy of the agitator, through congress-rats, versed in subtle and discrete manoeuvring. But whatever he looks like, the leader hates one thing: to be thought of as “basic”, anything but that! If he has read a lot, made notes and revised them in his life, he has some knowledge and that can be good for all of us. The problem is that his knowledge leaks out of everywhere, like the tumultuous waters of a broken dam, and the Latin quotes that he absent-mindedly but abundantly decorates his letters or articles with end up annoying even the best of souls. An amusing case: the case of the agitator (a labourer by trade and therefore unable to make long studies), very jealous of the opposite leader, self-taught and suddenly inebriated by the books he digested in one forced gulp and only dreams of one thing: to play the erudite; he will be seen judging everything and nothing, ravel in literature, destroy this or that philosopher in one sentence, “chat” about cinema or sculpture. The leader wants to pass for an educated gentleman and wants people to know it.

More delicate issues

But let’s leave behind what can only be ridiculous to go back to the more serious aspects of the difficulty of being an Anarchist. The first article started from the fact that beyond any organizational issue, it is a lot more difficult to be first of all an Anarchist in everyday life and it insisted on ethics, the moral attitude without which all the pretty speeches are just hot air. We will finish as we started, because ethics are in everything: it is not enough to know our “classics” perfectly and then forget to apply the simplest of rules in the simplest circumstance. What would we say for example of an Anarchist who would write a work on Authority while he himself was authoritarian? His writings might be very interesting, but the readers who knew him could not help see him as a joke. What would we say of an Anarchist that would be a boss and would exploit, even “fraternally”, a comrade who worked with him? And, talking about fraternity, how can we not be surprised at seeing even now Free-mason Anarchists, who meet up in lodges with exploiters and other representatives of the establishment: are these comrades “brothers” before they are libertarians or inversely? But we already studied this issue and I am only mentioning it as another example…

Another aspect, at first sight surprising, of libertarian ethics, can be raised here (although it would deserve a specific study, given its complexity): can an Anarchist be friends with a Fascist? I can see the reader jump up, what is that question? Where does it come from? Yes! If in Spain our comrades have amply proved that between us and Fascism there was a deadly fight, we have however left a doubt, which will have to be lifted one day.

I am not the only one to be outraged by the monstrous link that some newspapers sometimes make between Anarchists and Fascists (and let’s not talk about Stalinists, obviously!) without raising too much protest from the comrades mentioned. What then? So-and-so is a Fascist but it’s such a “bright guy” and so “unlike any other”! Still, to hear Mr. Loiselet have, as a guest in his “so Anarchistic” Monday show, Pierre Dominique and ask him politely (same politeness for both Anarchist and Fascist guests, it seems like both “extremists” are put in the same bag) what he “did in his life” is hard for me to digest! I know that Dominique is a “guy”, as were Paraz, and others, but all these lovely people wrote or are writing in a Fascist newspaper “Rivarol”. I know that my outrage will make me be accused by some of being “limited” and “sectarian” but I wonder, candidly, how an Anarchist can only socialize with people who practice racism (let’s focus on this example, putting aside the cult of the leader, of force, etc.) and turn it into a doctrine? But it is true that there are even some Anarchists who are racist themselves, I have met some, so what? I maintain that these revolted may have a small dose of unknowing Fascism in them and that nothing much would be needed probably for this disease to take them over one day (but I do not want to get too much into what is the subject of my comrade’s article in this issue).

And, since we are talking about our enemies (Fascists) we must not forget that Anarchist ethics can also be greatly damaged if, to be efficient, we start copying some methods. There is for example a complete incompatibility between most methods of the Communist Party, since these methods are based on a doctrine, and ours. And we would be wrong to argue the “successes” of so-called Soviet Russia. Let’s remind us simply what neo-leninist methods had turned the dead FCL into! I insist on this point, because it arises often during the life of a militant and when we get into the trap of “the end justifies the means”, no-one knows how far it can go…

* * *

Starting from a couple of observations on the difficulties of our fight, we went a little further… I do not think there is any particular conclusion to draw, as each chapter gives its own conclusions, as far as I am concerned. The fact remains that we will draw some much larger and more valuable conclusions if comrades send us their views, favorable or otherwise. Let’s say it one last time: the important thing is not that So-and-so wrote something, the important thing is to know whether he was derailing or not, and we can know that through the fraternal support of the readers. We say this with every article, our works are only viewpoints, only aimed at launching discussions, other articles which, we hope, will go beyond our own studies…

One thing is certain: the task of the libertarian militant is not easy! But examining the difficulties to overcome must not make us lose hope but must strengthen our resolve. I am thinking of something comrade Lorulot once said, advertising our journal in “L’Idée Libre” in March, that the difficulty of being an Anarchist might be much greater than I suppose it to be. It may well be true. Another reason not to relent our efforts.

Translation: The FCL and the elections of January 2, 1956, by Christian Lagant

[Trigger warning: mention of metaphorical suicide.]

Noir & Rouge, issue 9, Winter 1957/58?

The FCL and the elections of January 2, 1956

This article is not an “analysis” with definitive conclusions, or a polemic aimed at rekindling old quarrels. Since the first issue of Noir et Rouge (“Black and Red”), we always maintained that Anarchists should, in order to free themselves from their “family affairs” complex, resolutely abandon in their writing any state of mind or tone of voice which might prolong indefinitely conflicts which are all too marked by their personal nature. This must not prevent us, as we also stated at the start of our work, to go back without hesitation on some theoretical or tactical issues of Anarchism, which sometimes led to mistakes being made, deviations and also, why not say it, betrayals.

We thought that a reminder of how an organization which claimed itself, despite everything, libertarian communist, such as the former FCL (the former Anarchist Federation had indeed switched its name, in December 1953, to the name Libertarian Communist Federation) could help, by its concrete and relatively recent aspect, illustrate eloquently the sometimes contradictory thoughts of Anarchists around a still current issue.

Let’s try to see more clearly.

How could the idea of presenting a list of “candidates” in the legislative elections of January 2, 1956 be accepted by an organization whose newspaper was called “Le Libertaire” and whose official aim was the triumph of libertarian communism, the logical result from its anti-state theoretical position? In reality, this affair is not that simple and a quick study will show that the operation “participation” was the end result of a long process, which the FCL 1955 congress will definitely mark in print when it adopted the “revolutionary-participationist” theses, already developed in the internal bulletin of the organization, after a psychological preparation of militants which we will follow step by step. The theses adopted allowed for a “conditional” participation, the details of which are detailed in this article. Whatever: the principle was accepted, and from theory to reality there was only one step, quickly made with the early elections of New Year’s Day 1956.

In order to understand, or at least try to understand, past events, we have to do our best to take away the subjective elements of our judgment on the people responsible for the FCL electoral adventure. There is no point to know whether this or that militant had some secret thoughts when they argued in favour of participation, whether this or that “candidate” placed on the FCL list obeyed more their personal pride than their duty (sorry for the word) as a revolutionary militant. On these issues, each one of us can only suppose. Of the profound thoughts of individuals, we have no certitude. Also, simple objectivity forces us only to judge on proofs, that is what we will try to do in presenting the political arguments put forward by the supporters of participation. First of all, a bit of history, or rather a short story, will help us see more clearly.

How the idea made its way within the organization

For already several weeks, discussions on that issue circulated by word of mouth, so to speak, within the groups of the FCL in early 1955. Originally, the pretence was a reminder of our1 position about town council elections of April 26, 1953. At this time, the Anarchist Federation wrote on a poster (Le Libertaire 23/4/53, n°357):

These elections are an imposture (…) It’s true, workers, as every party will tell you, every party having had a go at leading a town council achieved something: a sports ground, a celebration room, better school meals, etc (…) But unemployment, fascism, and war are still here (…) The state continued its war policy and destroyed the realizing possibilities of communes (…) We are not fooled (…) To the workers who, after this, still want to vote thinking they choose a lesser evil, we remind them that the right is reaction and the left is betrayal. We say: “Vote, but it will just be one more experience” (…) Mass abstention! Not because we have no interest for the town issues, but, on the contrary, because the whole regime is to blame, and because these elections are an imposture (…) etc.”

And the AF to call, by way of conclusion, to revolutionary action in order to overthrow the regime. Some militants might still remember the forceful opposition of political parties (Stalinists among others) in some sectors as diverse as Maisons-Alfort and Ménilmontant-Belleville, against our anti-elections campaign. However, despite the augurs predicting a further rise in abstentionism, the percentage of non-voters was on the contrary very small! At the time, we were quite surprised and some comrades expressed the idea that it would be good to revise our “anti” tactics, given the latest results. Things, however, remained there, with no change to the official position of the federation on the issue.

It is in January-February 1955 that this old issue was put back under scrutiny. Reminding us of the 1953 elections, some comrades said it could be a better idea completely to stop using any 100% abstentionist propaganda, and that this was the weakness of libertarians, that it could be held against us, etc. And so the dialogue starts. But the debate takes a weirder turn very quickly, and some already express the wish for the FCL to adopt a more “lenient” tactical position by taking part in elections, potentially only at the level of town-councils. It was not going to remain there, and, in March 1955, the attack was formerly launched in the “Lien” (“Link”), the internal bulletin of the organization, with a motion from the FCL group of Maisons-Alfortville (if we precise the FCL group, it is because, at the time, there were two libertarian groups in Maisons-Alfort: the FCL one, and one from the new Anarchist Federation, reconstituted at Christmas 1953). Here is the motion in its entirety:

The MAA group wonders if it would not be the opportunity, during the next national congress, to open a debate on the means to amplify libertarian communist propaganda. We make the observation that we are present in the streets, in unions, why would we not imagine carrying our action on the more strictly-speaking political level? In the event of an electoral campaign, what would the attitude of the federation be? Must we be content with claiming the traditional and formal principle of abstentionism? Would it not be suitable to reconsider this notion of abstentionism in order to see to what extent it can determine our behaviour without putting us in contraction with the founding ideas which are at the origin of the creation of the FCL: excessive class struggle, and direct action? By systematically abstaining, do we not risk losing our influence within the working-class? On the other hand, electoral struggle having become a form of the class-struggle, could we not envision this issue as a tactical issue relative to circumstances and to the realities of the social struggle? In fear of hurting preconceived ideas, must we be content with an ill-fitting revolutionarism which would be the equivalent of a pure and simple resignation? Must we, by lack of cohesion, of directive, and in fear of words, like in the past, compromise the libertarian communist revolution?

Motion, passed unanimously on 25/2/55 in M.A.”

We wished to publish this motion in its entirety, as it is extremely significative of the state of mind of some comrades at the time, in full ideological confusion.

In the same “Link”, the FCL national committee submitted a synthesis of the propositions for the agenda sent by a few groups for the May congress. In paragraph 4 of this synthesis proposal (orientation and tactics), point b mentioned: the issue of electoral participation. That is proof that this issue had been carefully crafted and that it was now launched forward. In April, the “Link” published 1) the definitive agenda for the congress, with the adoption of point b. 2) a very long 9-page article by comrade F2, entitled “In favour of revolutionary practicism”. To quote the full article would be too long and somewhat fastidious for the reader, so let’s just look at its four point conclusion:

a) anti-parliamentarianism and revolutionary practicism.

b) participation in elections when real conditions exist to elect revolutionary working-class representatives, therefore determination of our position when faced with each concrete situation.

c) severe control by the organization of the people elected.

d) participation in elections can only be one of the forms of agitation of the organization and must in no way prevail over other forms.”

To inform comrades, let’s precise that by “revolutionary practicism”, the author of the article intended to answer the question: why is taking part in elections not to be confused with parliamentarianism or reformism? After a quick explanation which justified how revolutionary struggles can be in favour of some demands without falling into reformist syndicalism, he concluded:

In the same way, we can take part in electoral struggles, have representatives in town councils or assemblies if we consider we will not then have posts of legislators but of agitators. We see this as a form of agitation which cannot be neglected. We can say that such a position is in no way reformism, but revolutionary practicism (…)”

Finally, in this same April “Link”, if a few groups already expressed their agreement with an eventual electoral participation of the FCL “when the real conditions exist”, the future “opposition”, at the congress, manifested on the other hand their vivacious hostility to the motion of Alfortville, as well as the Lyon group, the Mâcon group declared:

The group wants to declare with force that the MAA text (the electoral struggle having become a form of the class struggle!) is in its eyes an attack on the Declaration of Principles of the FCL which states: “The specific libertarian-communist organization is attached to the present struggles of the exploited and oppressed masses, but always in the sense of direct action.” Consequently, the group demands that the issue of electoral participation be taken off the agenda of the congress.”

And thus the discussion grew within the FCL until the national congress, without Le Libertaire having made any publicity of the internal controversy of the movement. It must be noticed however that in June 1953, an article from Le Libertaire entitled “The Demo-Christians’ defeat is a sign of the maturity of the Italian proletariat” had caused some worries and surprises among the readership, reinforced on September 10 and 24 of the same year by two articles on the same theme: workers’ votes for left parties = political maturity (Le Libertaire, September 10, 1953 n°372, article by A.V. correspondent from the Anarchist Groups of Proletarian Action (Italy) “The current political situation in Italy” — Le Libertaire, September 24, 1953 n°375 “Stop fascism” by P.P.). When we said at the start that, after the elections of April 1953 and the few reproaches expressed on our tactics, things had remained there within the movement, we had forgotten to mention these few worrying lines, mea culpa! But let’s get back to the year 1955. Le Libertaire is then discrete about the issue of elections, apart maybe for a very short article (Le Libertaire, April 28, 1955 n°448, “The cantonal elections” by R.J.) about the cantonal elections, the conclusion of which will sound curious:

The fact that there is a shifting to the left in such sterile elections and after systematic betrayals on the part of all parties that represented the left, shows a heightened will of the workers, a renewal of working-class fighting spirit. Up to us to know how to allow this will to fight to ascertain itself and be put into effect.”

Very curious was this workers’ “heightened will to fight”, since they were voting! And on top of this, for parties which had systematically betrayed them!

The national congress accepts participation

On May 28, 29 and 30, 1955, the FCL congress was held in Paris. During this congress, the theses of the “conditional” participation (the conditions being those mentioned in the article “Revolutionary practicism”) of our organization in future elections were adopted with quite a large majority, despite a “glorious last stand” from the opponents to the new electoral tactics, that is, the groups of Lyon, Mâcon and a few Paris militants.

Some conciliatory efforts had been attempted however, and we were ready to give up the absolutely abstentionist position, some of us even accepting maybe the participation in town elections, which represented a major concession already on our part. The affair having been scrupulously “peeled” in the groups, we had systematically regrouped all the “pros” and “cons” and counted them: to no avail, the sum of “cons” was always higher! The highest number of cases had also been envisioned, and since we were talking about elections, we might as well go the whole way! To start with, the principle itself of anti-parliamentarianism was examined: the congress agreed generally to preserve it, although a certain contradiction appeared with the adoption of the measures that were to follow. Another case was the participation in town council elections: let’s say this argument was the one which had the most strength on us, with its supporters exposing the useful role which having FCL elected officials could have at the level of the city, for one, the advantage of being in closer contact with the voters than during the legislative elections, propaganda being able to result in favour of libertarian communist ideas from the energetic action led to realise some things. We were also shown the advantages we would have from using the poster-stands and panels in order to make our ideas and programmes better-known, and, last but not least, the old call to our libertarian attachment to the idea of a commune was quite craftily used, by comrades who claimed they refused precisely any “sentimentalism”. We must recognize that some of the arguments were not valueless, but we could not stop asking these questions: even at the strict level of the commune or township, how would an elected official (maybe two), claiming to be anti-statist, accomplish any useful task without being soon isolated from their politician “colleagues”, then soon hindered and fought, even annihilated? To this, the proponents answered that the FCL elected official, when treated in such a way, could publicly attack their town council opponents, protesting against their methods and the regime which favours them, and thus increase our propaganda within the population. It can however be asked whether the voter, seeing the failure of their “revolutionary” elected official, would not have simply thought “he shouldn’t have gone if he knew what to expect!”, which would lead to an increase in the propaganda for the voter being brutally conscious that he has been fooled once more? Nothing is less certain.

Quite an amazing case was also put forward: indirect participation through a support to the “workers’” party closest to the FCL positions. We think it is not useful to spend long on this issue, which we also did at the time. To ask what “workers’” party was synonymous for some to answer with “the most left”, obviously, therefore the French Communist Party, or the Socialist Party, or even Trotskyists, why not? Now there would be the Socialist Left Union (!) to consider, but, once again, we must know whether militants, anti-statist by principle, are ready to get stuck in the slightly disgusting clockwork of the state machine in order to better demolish it from within. This is the only question, and we can after all commit political suicide in several different ways. And, since we are talking about suicide, participation in legislative elections themselves was finally discussed. To put it clearly, the possibility for a FCL militant to be presented on a list recognized by the organization, and if they were ever elected, to sit in Parliament among the 600 something MPs which compose the National Assembly. We can measure there the long road already walked by some comrades who, a few weeks earlier, only defended the town council participation!

We still think it is pointless to be outraged or sarcastic like some Anarchists believed they had to be. It is easy to accuse comrades who are mistaken of all evils (being wrong can happen), harder to try to understand their motives. We can say that many, among these comrades, sincerely thought (with some naivety from some and an obvious lack of political training from others, a fact we are all responsible for, by the way) that one or a few decided and honest militants could seriously influence the fate of workers by playing in the Assembly the role of “revolutionary commandos”, this word which was to be often repeated in Le Libertaire during its electoral campaign in late 1955. These comrades simply forgot that the only gesture that revolutionaries can make in the Assembly is to throw a bomb in it and that if we are not, or no longer, partisans of this old method, by principle or by fear, we have nothing to do there! And even if we accept the purely “technical” aspect of the operation,  what could have a couple (at most) of FCL MPs achieved by making scandals in Parliament? Did the agitation of Marty, with his leather belt, change anything to the fate of the exploited, when in the first years of his mandate, he routinely was evicted forcefully by the officials from Parliament? What about the risk of absorption of the new MP by the system? To this, we were told that “the organization would severely control its elected officials”. How? And for how long? We only have to be reminded of the example, painful to all Anarchists, of the “minister-comrades” during the Spanish revolution. They had behind them, in theory, a much more powerful organization than the FCL to “control” them and we can wonder: what was the best work accomplished at that time, the work of the CNT-FAI grassroots, or the work of the “minister-comrades”? It could be said that it is a different case, that it was the war and it is easy to criticize afterwards, it is true. But did this not leave us, libertarians, with the same unease?

To get back to the congress, material advantages were also mentioned: reimbursement of the cost of propaganda during the campaign, reimbursement of the deposits of any candidacy which scored over 5% of votes (our underscoring), indemnities earned by elected officials, etc. To this last argument, the experiment of January 2, 1956 was to answer with facts, justifying the most passionate, even desperate, warnings.

That is how, pushing away any effort of conciliation, ignoring the elementary calls to prudence, the FCL congress agreed on the principle of participation and ran towards its fate.

The FCL electoral campaign

It was on October 27, 1955 that the FCL position on the electoral issue went from being internal to being public, by the way of Le Libertaire. It was first something small, of course, an article which ended like this:

A working-class MP must not play the parliamentarian game of the bourgeois class. He knows that the people he is talking to are not sincere, that there is no  parliamentary compromise, that he must rely on the direct action of workers” (Le Libertaire, n°450,Vote explanations and parliamentary pantomime” M.H.)

On top of an undeniable contradiction of all the terms in this epilogue, the idea of the “working-class MP” was launched. The following issues of Le Libertaire were going to toughen it all up, first of all with a series of articles “The FCL and the Popular Front” (n°451, 452, 453, G.F.) and above all by the editorials, which were much more direct. The November 17 one became even more precise and the upcoming electoral participation of the FCL could be guessed transparently. After the December 8 issue in which an extraordinary convening of the FCL national council in reason of “the seriousness of the circumstances and the proximity of the electoral campaign” was announced, it was the official confirmation on December 15, when Le Libertaire declared: “The FCL enters the fight” with the presentation of a list of 10 candidates and the opening of a special fundraising for the campaign which started. From this moment on, it was obvious that an irreversible process was underway and that the FCL was trapped in the usual pattern, with its “programme” and “meetings” etc. Let’s add that, through several comrades, we learned that the participation in these elections had not been decided without infighting, and a few “pros” at the congress being brutally put against the wall by the events and starting to realize the difficulties of the undertaking. Le Libertaire, however, organized its campaign. November 24, Camillo Berneri was called as ideological reinforcement, and the publication of part of his article on the electoral issue (Adunata dei Refrattari, 25/4/1936) tended to justify participation. On December 22, the Algerian workers of the first sector of the Seine were called to vote for the Libertaire list… by Le Libertaire obviously. On the electoral panels on the St Michel boulevard or the Versailles gate, the yellow poster of the Libertaire list reproduced, on top of the pictures of the FCL candidates (one of which is presently a member of the directing committee of the UGS), their programme: fight for better life conditions, fight against the war and colonialism, fight for secular schools and youth, fight for women’s “freedom and dignity”, fight for the elderly. This election programme, like many others, seemed attractive at first sight and some preoccupations were even excellent (among others, the advising of free abortion in medical settings and free contraceptive means could only attract the sympathy of all even only halfdecent, not necessarily “revolutionary” people) but we could not stop seeing its demagogy, compulsory in these cases. Of course, Le Libertaire considered at length the role of “elected officials” in the Assembly, their action as “revolutionary commandos” etc. As for the public meetings held by the FCL, Le Libertaire wrote for example on December 29: “You only have to see the reactions from the audience, to hear the applause (…)” but rarely mentions the number of people in attendance! How are these meetings held, what atmosphere do they create? This is what we are going to see through two meetings held on the same evening of December 30.

It is 9 p.m. We are in a small classroom of the school 36 bis rue Violet (15e), Paris. Let’s count: there are exactly 13 people, including 5 FCL militants which we have seen before (it is true that we are in a half-bourgeois district and this could also explain the almost emptiness of the room, and it is cold). An orator, comrade F. finishes his speech before running off to the second meeting which is held 18 rue du Moulin-des-Prés, in the heart of the proletarian district of the 13th arrondissement, this time. In order better to see the difference, let’s follow the wandering orator and arrive soon after him around 10 p.m. in this modest gym where we can now count 15 people, including 6 militants minimum. The room is dead, despite the “popular” tone used by the orator (in the 15th arrondissement, arguments were more subtle, their expression more refined) and that might be when we measure the sad comedy of such a situation. Once the speeches are over, the opponents are prayed to expose their position. Once, twice, no opposition. The electrophone then spouts out a “vibrant” Internationale, while the audience, following the imperious example of the militants, get up from their seats. In order to kindle enthusiasm, there would have been in other meetings Soviet chants and war songs…

That was on December 30, the last day of the electoral campaign. On January 2, 1956, the FCL scored in the 1st sector of the Seine (13th, 14th, 15th, 5th, 6th, 7th arrondissements) 960 votes in the first results (« France Soir »), 1200 for another, then 1600, 1800 according to the newspaper. We will never know how many exactly, and for a couple dozen, maybe hundred votes it does not matter so much. Le Libertaire of January 5 announced, very vaguely: “Thousands of workers of the 1st sector of Paris have manifested their agreement with our politics”. It seems to us logical to remark that the FCL should have been the first to give a precise figure. Why such an ambiguity? Since they still have to give some figure, and the readership is curious, Le Libertaire of January 12 announces “close to 3000 votes”, so overall, we can guess the number of FCL voters at around 2000 people “VOTE MASSIVELY” had said Le Libertaire.

Conclusion

The conclusion? It is easy enough to establish. Militants claiming to be libertarian communists tried the electoral adventure. What anti-statist propaganda was able to arise from these few weeks? And how could the astonished voters faced with the list from Le Libertaire (when, to them, Le Libertaire was Anarchists, whatever you say!) make a difference between that list and others sometimes run by small parties such as Trotskyist groups and others, the first care of which is to advise, in case of a second turn, their voters to vote for the French Communist Party? Material advantages? We believe to know that a certain number of comrades, who mistakenly and recklessly bet on this adventure had to pay for a long time, out of their savings, the various spendings incurred. The deposit (without anywhere near 5% of the vote), the posters, all the expenses caused by such an undertaking (Le Libertaire of January 19 mentioned: the FCL owes over a million for the election campaign expenses — article by B.D. “Elections and bourgeois democracy”). And what must have felt these comrades whose only capital was their enthusiasm and good faith? Le Libertaire itself, faced with the results out of proportion with the efforts made confessed on January 12:

We are not a party in which bluff is king, and we believe that one of the essential conditions for Progress is to face the facts, even if they are not always of a nature to create enthusiasm. We are not hiding that the result obtained by the FCL is modest (…)”

It is hard to hide the glaring fact, even though for the actual results Le Libertaire tries by savant arithmetics to prove the 3000 voters (if you say so!) represent really 20 to 30,000 workers of the Paris area influenced by its propaganda! (Le Libertaire n°461 “Lessons from our participation”). The FCL voters are therefore called to a discussion meeting on January 25, to envision the situation after the elections. That was the moment to see who were the voters and what they thought. Unfortunately, the minutes which should have logically followed such a meeting were never published in Le Libertaire and it is on this last not very encouraging sign for eventual new participationists that we will end the tale of an experiment from which Anarchists should learn.

Christian

1 The author was a member of the FCL until the June 1955 congress, resigning from this organization after the vote accepting electoral participation. Other isolated comrades, as well as the Lyon and Mâcon groups, also resigned during that period.

2 We do not think that the full names of the mentioned comrades have any great importance, only the facts matter here.

On Libcom: Crowdsourcing political trials

So, first disclaimer is that libcom.org offers probably the greatest library for Anarchist (and anti-authoritarian Marxist) resources in English. Secondly, its moderation system seems to work very efficiently, so its forums could potentially be a very interesting place for debate. I joined recently, since I no longer have an organization, and as such was looking for substitutes, I guess, and contributed very little, as I mainly have little to contribute. However, yesterday, I attracted the attention of a Temple Warden.

What is a Temple Warden?

As far as I know, a comrade chose the use of that phrase, I just extended this phrase to outside our own wee Anarchist group. All Anarchists are (potential) Wardens. They come in all shapes and forms, although, as it is related to obnoxiousness, I would say they have a propensity to be White, male, cis, able-bodied, middle-aged and teachers. They are not evil, faulty individuals needing blamed and ostracized, they are a role to criticize, challenge and hopefully eradicate. I certainly acted as one at times and probably will again, even though I am sorry about it. Temple Wardens, if they are conscious at all of what they are doing, think they are protecting their group, organization, or simply the whole Anarchist movement from ideological deviance. This is a noble cause, and, like Maria Isidine, I believe that careless recruitment is a source of most problems of organization, and, with ideologies such as Anarcho-Capitalism or Anarcho-Nationalism around, the danger of “ideological deviance” does exist. However, there is a world of difference between what Wardens think they are doing, and what they are actually doing.

What do Temple Wardens do?

They act as the dominant wolf of the pack, and when a young wolf comes along, they lock their jaw on its nape until it submits to their feudal authority. Their mistrust of the newcomer is not based on legitimate assumptions formed from what a person says, but on their personal experience of newcomers, either in the general sense, or in a more precise way. Some Wardens specialize in the ritual humiliation/initiation only of students, people who have a “posher” accent, the queers and women who would potentially be identity-politic-liberal types. This dimension is obviously problematic in itself, but is not the core of the problem with Wardens, most of which are strictly equal-oppurtunity Wardens, although, as we will see, the people who are intimidated/driven away by Wardens have a tendency to be people who have both experience and distaste of personal power politics, therefore more often than not from oppressed groups. Suspects are almost always newcomers to Anarchism altogether, as Wardens are something we get used to pretty quickly; or old-timers who have shed their rough skin because of a new experience of harassment, especially harassment caused by their political beliefs.

Shall we have an example?

At first, I did not realise it, as he approached me saying “I think I agree with you, but why do you say X”, which I think is libcom slang for “I think you do not deserve to be an Anarchist, and I would like you to confess it”. I was enthusiastic about talking about an issue I have been worried about (see past posts!) for quite some time. However, it soon turned out that what I thought was a slightly free-wheeling, quick exchange of ideas around this issue was actually the political trial of everything I am, think and do, without any insight for me to gain from it apart from angry exasperated swears at the fact that everything I am, think and do is suspicious, wrong, or even counter-revolutionary.

Self-Defence Tips against Wardens (in no way an exhaustive list):

  • -Do not fight. You do not have to justify yourself. If you do, you will be tripped up and caught, and denounced as a fake Anarchist and a traitor to the revolution. Even if you are careful only to phrase your ideas in the form of the ideological manual of whatever organization the Warden is from, it will not be enough to prove your innocence, as it is not about ideas, but about initiatory humiliation and submission to random displays of authority. You will be pushed, and pushed, and pushed again to the tiniest use of punctuation or misunderstanding of a Marx quote, until you break.
  • -Express how you feel. Many Wardens do not realize what they are doing, so you should point out how you feel (harassed, put on trial, etc.)
  • -Replace the debate on the terrain of ideas. Assure the Warden that you are interested to discuss, as two equals discussing of an issue.
  • -Seek outside views. The role of Warden is, more accurately, a relationship between the Warden and the suspect. Outsiders are good to take the Warden’s line of questioning and turn them into acceptable, answerable questions, a well as generally defusing the situation
  • Concede defeat. It would be nice, if no Anarchist place demanded acceptance through ritual submission, however this is not the case. There is always the possibility to either nod, smile and take one for the team, if you really want to be included. People who do this have a tendency to then become Wardens themselves, so remember this episode, even if not glorious. Temple Wardens often become the most loyal and fervent defenders of people who accept whatever weird ritual acceptance they come up with as initiation, so you should be fine afterwards. Or you can also tell them to fuck off, and go on your merry way, pretending you are not sad at being de facto excluded from their silly Anarchists’ club. It really is all that simple and childish, and your welfare is not worth the effort.

How not to be a Warden?

The problem we have as Anarchists however, is how to prevent such relationships to emerge in the first place, for the welfare of all. And, as always, the answer is try not to be a dick, but more precisely:

  • -Be conscious of the problem and constantly ask yourself about whether you are genuinely curious of someone’s view on something and their reaction to your argument, or just trying to assert the authority of your superior views on someone;
  • -If you have a doubt about someone’s politics, express your question clearly, without making it personal. Do not go fishing;
  • -Offer something in return: an insight, an argument, even if you are strawmanning a bit, it is more conducive to someone expressing their actual view than leaving them to guess what your accusation is (not having a clear accusation being the definition of a political trial);
  • -Express your own status as an imperfect being, there is not someone who has the truth and does not have to share their view, and someone who has to comply to all and any request, there are only two people who are legitimate Anarchists and revolutionaries, with not only diverging views, but also a lot of doubts, uncertainties and errors. We are all unsure about most things and sharing your own incertitudes will help you not become a judging figure of authority.
  • If someone expresses the feeling that they are being cornered, questioned (as in, by the police, not in an okay way), harassed or put on trial, do not judge their feelings or tell them how to feel: ‘You are unreasonable’, “You are blowing this out of proportion”, “Calm down (dear)”. Yes, they are being “unreasonable” because they are put in a situation where the only “reasonable” possibility you give them is to agree on your authority. Do not concentrate on whether they are “mad” or not, concentrate on how you are driving them that way. Apologize for making them feel that way (it does not cost you anything), ask them what in your attitude makes them feel that way and listen to their answer so that you can both recentre the debate on a constructive basis.

I hope these considerations help people who read them. I was here concerned about Anarchism, but it is certain that Temple Wardens, if they have special traits in their Anarchist form, are the manifestation of a much broader role which pops up in human relations in almost all contexts. As Anarchists, we are all well-equipped to know why such a role is not beneficial in the long-term to our objectives. In order to eradicate these relations though, we need to discuss them. Anyway, these recurring situations are a pain, and I was defeated by a Temple Warden and shall not set foot on Libcom for a wee while at least.

Notes on Anarchist Translation

Anarchists have a tendency to overlook the issue of translation completely. In the long list of reasons on the schism between Marx and Bakunin, almost no-one (apart from translators) mentions the dispute over the payment of the translation of Das Kapital. Mainly, they seem to think translation somehow “happens” and it can be true, in some cases, like when an Italian Anarchist went to expose his ideas to Spanish workers. Despite not having any Spanish, he somehow conveyed his enthusiasm and these workers went on to form the largest national Anarchist organization ever to exist. This funny incident is related by Brennan in his unavoidable work on the context for the Spanish Revolution, The Spanish Labyrinth. However, sometimes it does not “just happen”, as we have seen in many instances in St. Imier in August 2012.

History aside, I would like to point out why translation must be in everyone’s minds. First of all, it is a task that needs doing. Many Anarchists around the world work in almost complete ignorance from what others are doing in other countries, which leads to a massive waste of time and energy that could be resolved by translation. I have personally thought there might be a connection between the “Anarchist golden age” and the fact that the vast majority of Anarchists of that period were immigrants, commonly speaking over three languages, and almost always translating large volumes of text from one to the other. I would even say that this correlation might not only be the result of the amelioration in exchanges that it made possible, but also of certain qualities of thought that translation reinforces: caring about the meaning of words over the formula that sounds good, or over who is speaking, being confused by forced or empty rhetoric, etc.

Secondly, it is a very important and obvious part of power relationships. When I see that some text has never been translated into some language, sometimes it is an understandable omission of a minor text, sometimes it is just chance, and , rarely, but it happens, it is obviously because the people who could have pointed comrades towards that text or translated it for them had no interest in doing so. If we do not discuss translation, that will keep on happening, silencing Anarchist minority views on some national issues.

The issue of power is a question I cannot avoid as an Anarchist translator. Not only in the choice I make of the texts I translate and who I translate for, but in the way I translate. It is so easy and tempting to use words with just a slightly different connotation to make the text either more likely to be accepted or on the contrary more likely to be rejected by Anarchists. And probably all translators do this, to different extents: a colleague explained how he did not translate avant-gardisme by vanguardism, as “it was a totally different concept” in both languages. The truth is, it is a complex concept in both languages, which has had times when its meaning was less negative than now, but, over all, Leninism is quite international. The current status of the translator in Anarchist circles is not one in which accountability is primordial, and, like the sabotage-loving workers we are, we sometimes have a tendency to leave a few pearls in our translations. It will teach them not to learn the language! We can only command the intellectual honesty of your average translator for the situation not to be worse than it is.

In the case of international meetings, it takes even bigger proportions. The issue of who speaks and especially who is listened to in meetings is a fundamental one. Anarcha-feminists have pointed times and times again that in many long meetings, a woman starting to speak is the unconscious signal for everyone in the room to check their phone, turn to address their friend, even walk out or do anything that they’ve been wanting to do for a while now but could not because the meeting drags on with men giving long speeches. This is destabilizing to even the best public speaker, but if this woman lacks confidence, it can lead to a circle of reinforcing social awkwardness which can even lead to the meeting ending without her getting a chance to finish what she has to say. When you translate such a meeting, you notice this, as well as who gets their interventions cut short, who gets credit for ideas, etc. Sometimes you get to make enforcement decisions: if someone exceeds the allowed time for their intervention, do you keep translating? Usually it depends on how tired you are, but also who the person is and how interesting you find what they are saying (to a lesser extent, on how annoying is the person sometimes shouting for the person to stop, thus preventing you to finish the translation of what was said even during the allowed time… Because it is not people the absent-minded people clapping at the end of a speech over you muttering your translation in the corner who are annoying, even so-called “facilitators” do everything but facilitate translations in many cases). How many times I shortened a speech by saying “he’s just reapeating what she said”? I have sincerely no idea. Too many.

But, at the same time that you have absolute power over what people get from someone speaking, and examples of sarcastic dubbing are numerous, whether insiduous or blatantly obvious, when someone tells you “now he’s just going on about half-baked Leftist crap” you know you’re not getting the word-for-word original; you are also, on the other hand, entirely deprived of your own voice. How frustrating it is to go to a meeting you really look forward to and want to contribute to, only to realize that they need a translator, and therefore you will basically miss the entire debate! And I say miss because interpreting is a pretty intense activity for the brain, but if there is one function of it that is impaired during it, it is long-term memory. All the talks I have translated have something in common: they are a complete blur.

St. Imier was a prime example of how, when little to no thought is given to translation, we can divide ourselves into linguistic communities who experience totally different realities, the polar opposite of what we claim we want to achieve through international gatherings. Those issues have to be addressed, not by Anarchist translators, who are generally only too well aware of them, but by the movement as a whole.