Thursday, September 07, 2006

Words as treacherous reptiles ie chameleons:
To clarify what I said about the original meaning of "direct action" in anarchist parlance I present the following quote from the piece entitled 'Direct Action' by Voltairine De Cleyre. She says,
"Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All cooperative experiments are essentially direct action. "
This says it very clearly. Most of the peaceable actions that anarchists have been involved in during the last century and a half, whether building unions, cooperatives, free schools, intentional communities, credit unions, cultural organizations, community organizations and so much more were direct action in this original sense. Where anarchism has gone "off the rails" and engaged in terrorism as in the days of 'propaganda by the deed' or in modern terms of hero worshipping Maoist thugs or play-acting at "tinker-toy terrorism" it is NOT "direct action". It is, at the high of hubris, the idea that one can terrorize ruling groups into giving up their power. With things that are really pinpricks in the social scale of things. This sort of nonsense has never worked, and it has been tried thousands of times by various actors-most of them non-anarchist. When something doesn't work once you can't say anything. When it fails 5 times in a row there is definitely a trend. When it fails 20 times in a row (such as Communist regimes) there is some sort of "law" involved- to the 95% confidence level. When, like terrorism, it has failed thousands or tens of thousands of times it is no longer a statistical law. It takes on the character of a "law of nature".
At a lower level of self delusion it is the idea that "exemplary actions" will inspire "the masses" (substitute your own word for other people here if you like) to rise up of the shining example given by the audacious revolutionaries. This was actually quite a common idea of "anarchism in its infancy". It might have had some superficial attraction in the days of the Bakuninist International in France and Italy. It lingered on for a longer time in the practice of the Spanish anarchists, but even there it ran aground on the hard shore of reality. It never worked even in peasant societies where the ground had been prepared by decades of educational activity. Let's say that again- it NEVER worked.
This delusion that all it takes is a spark has pretty much been abandoned by the mature anarchist movement of today. It lives on in the theory of "insurrectionalists" in countries such as Greece and Italy and in their anglosphere hero worshipers. Though I must say that backing this particular football team for North Americans doesn't begin to approach the mindlessness and moral turpitude of always being on the lookout for nationalist and Leninist teams to back. The present theory and practice of "insurrectionism" lacks the peasant society that made this strategy even moderately convincing in the 19th century and the early years of the 20th in countries such as Spain.
Then, of course, you come to the bottom of the barrel. Those who glorify plotting riots in which they always,always,always,always,always lose in the end under the delusion that you can influence not "the people/masses,majority,etc" but some vague "movement" that needs to be "radicalized". Or, to probe BELOW the bottom of the barrel, that the results simply don't matter, that getting the crap kicked out of you is either an absolute moral imperative or somehow really "fun and liberating" and "creates new ways of living". At this point we have left the domain of politics and entered some of the more strange demiworlds of religious cultism.
But to come back to the title of this little complaint. Words can be slippery things at the best of times, and they often change their meanings over time. The word "communism" is instructive. It originally meant nothing more than a social situation where the means of production were owned socially, not individually. The mechanism of this ownership was usually seen as a local group of residents, "the Commune". It took on an utopian dimension with the ideological triumph of Marxism and its left of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" from the more creative so-called "utopian socialists". The fantasy of an Hegelian end-goal of history, fueled by the totalitarian power of pseudo-explanation afforded by this dream became very popular and essentially obliterated the earlier vision which retained more than a slight "hint" of "punishing defectors". The ordinary people who incubated the earlier vision knew that they couldn't trust "their own" to not cheat, let alone the declasse intellectuals who came to seize power in Marxist Parties. But this bastard child of the German academy was able to exert a religious appeal that simple popular wisdom could never have.
Later even this utopian vision was overwhelmed by yet another meaning. In the time of Leninist success "communism" came to mean nothing more than whatever the ruling classes of communist states said it was- this week. Being as this "communism" involved mass murder on a scale that dwarfed even the Nazis, "communism" acquired an odious connotation that 90% of the world's population finds detestable.
The attempt by some to revive the term under such headings as "anarchist communism" or "anarcho-communism" may be understandable, but it runs up against the logic of history. The term "communism" no longer means what anarcho-communists want it to mean in either its original or utopian formulations. I know what it means, and I consider it one (but NOT the only one) of ways in which an anarchist society could order its economy. To be less utopian I also consider it ONE of the ways that anarchists could work towards reform of advanced industrial societies. It is part of an intelligent strategy for an anarchism that realizes its limitations. NOT the "whole pig", but an essential part. Some enterprise should be run by democratic vote of local residents- with due checks and balances such that such power was not absolute. Some enterprises are much better managed in different ways.
Incisive thinkers such as Murray Bookchin recognized that this historical debris existed. hence his desire to rename the essential ideas of anarchist communism as "Communalism". Even the term "anarchism" itself has very often distressed more than a few convinced anarchists. The reason is the same. It is something that has acquired meanings not just different from the original but often in direct contradiction to same. I've often felt the urge to describe what I believe as "libertarian socialism", but this is rather restrictive in that it fails to take into account an emphasis on individual liberty (here in the civilized world outside of the USA where "libertarian" is either a synonym for anarchism or a "whazzat" word). Most anarchists have responded by adding adjectives to their anarchism. Any Time Now calls itself "for social anarchism" or "a journal of social anarchism" just like "social ecology" did before its more pronounced split with anarchism. Fred Woodworth calls his opinions "ethical anarchism". Groups such as NEFAC and other platformists call what they believe "communist anarchism".
To the initiated this means that there are those who call themselves "anarchist" who are not "communist", let alone "social" nor "ethical". Anarchism has NOT been a religious cult such as Marxism that demands uniformity of belief, and its stance of rebellion has attracted not just some of the best over the years but also some of the worst. Their is a need for clearly distinguishing oneself in this whirlpool of ideas.
The term "direct action" is very much like words such as "communism" or "anarchism" It can easily come to mean nothing more than posturing at militancy rather than what it meant to the historical anarchist movement at its best. In such a case-"bugger the word". If it comes to mean something very much the opposite of its original it would be time to find new terms to describe achieving a goal by ones own efforts; not by pleading with authority OR by childishly trying to bully authority. Especially !!! not anything more than bragging about one's "militancy".

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