Sunday, July 13, 2008

The medieval woodcut on the left by Cornelis Anthonisz depicts the 10 stages of life, from infancy to death. On the left a baby lies in a bed. On the right a man sits with his legs dangling over the grave. Each stage of life is accompanied by a representative animal. The symbolism is thought provoking, and we should examine the question of "generations" in the anarchist movement today in relation to "why anarchist projects fail". This is the second instalment in the series of "why anarchist projects fail".
To begin with there are very few countries in the world where there is a living continuity of generations in terms of anarchism. We are hardly in the situation of pre-Civil War Spain where families such as the Urales family passed their anarchism on from generation to generation. The conditions of modern totalitarianism, either fascist or communist, basically exterminated such families. In my own family I had a grand-uncle who fought with Nestor Makhno, but he was killed by the Nazis in his "refuge" of Germany after fleeing the Soviets(his family language of a mixture of French/German/Russian persuaded him that Germany was a good place to go to-silly guy). My mother became an anarchist in her old age after both studying Russian and reading Kropotkin. But basic upbringing was left social democrat, as per the politics of my Irish father.This sort of upbringing made it actually quite easy to transit to the type of gradualist anarchism I hold to today.
Only France and Italy preserve the real continuity of anarchist generations, unaffected by mass extermination. When I visited Spain and the offices of the CNT in Barcelona there was a collection of quite elderly men in the "meeting room" in one section. The editor of Solidaridad Obrero was somewhat younger than me, and we tried to communicate through our mutually bad French. What I noticed was an absence of "middle-aged people" on the premises. The headquarters of the CGT in Barcelona was a little bit better, with a better mix of generations- but not by much. The youth of the staff was quite obvious. Well, and good. What does this mean, especially in the situation of most of the world where anarchists are overwhelmingly young, as in Canada.
Anarchism is in the throes of a revival, and it is to be expected that most of its adherents will be quite young. This has both its good points and its bad points. Let's travel through them.
People generally come to anarchism when they are quite young. This may be as little as 13 years. It may be as late as graduate school. The complaint that the vast majority of people who adopt anarchism as a younger age are not anarchist in a few years is actually quite ancient. Emma Goldman commented on it almost a century ago, and she waved it away (as she waved away so many things in her life-yes, Molly has never liked Goldman) withn the snappy one-liner that "we have had the best of them". Insofar as this goes it is true, but it obscures many things.
When people first come to anarchism they usually infused with "the light of conversion". Their enthusiasm is boundless, but so are their expectations. They far too often imagine that all they have to do is present "the idea" , and huge numbers of people will flock to the banner. When this, inevitably, doesn't happen they are left with stark choices. One of them is to adopt a rational long-term view of the anarchist project. A small minority-the best- take up this option. They may adopt any number of long term strategies. One of the most popular today is the "platformist" option. Another is to simply wipe the whole commitment off their memory and go on to different things. This is the option of the vast majority of ex-anarchists. Their choice may indeed be rational, especially if they have seen the worst of the anarchist movement close up. A third, the worst option, is to take their emotional frustration as a guide to action and enter into what Molly calls "kindergarden terrorism" under the false assumption that more militant actions will impel the "masses" that initially rejected them to join them. A pretty silly delusion actually, as the vast majority of such wanna-be terrorists usually pick ideological positions that are rock solid guaranteed top be rejected by the ordinary person. Whether it be the end of civilization or neo-Maoist nostalgia in terms of crime "in the name of" racial minorities the end result is the same. The ordinary persaon sees them as one more "urban nuissance", and applauds the police actions against them with the same emotions that they applaud city actions against other pests such as mosquitos. The comparison is quite apt as the actions of such groups are on the level of "increased insect populations", not the "great threat to the rulers" that they imagine.
It is hardly surprising that "student anarchists" will rethink their ideological position after a few years. Their life situation is, of course, inherantly unstable. For the majority it lasts 4 years, and then they go on to what is sadly called "reality". In developed countries the majority of young people attend some sort of "institution of higher learning", whether it be university or a technical college. It is there where they first meet anarchism, but it is an anarchism that is specfic to their circumstances. It is rootless and ahistorical, lacking any long term perspective. It imzagines great things can be accomplishd in a tiny bit of time. Some will go on from this apprenticeship into the opportunities offered by the "established left" after their graduation. Insofar as they "remain anarchists" they will eternally compromise their original ideals. Sometimes they will lie about such compromise and claim that they haven't changesw their opinions at all. This tactic, traditionally associated with (ex)Trotskyists, depends upon the modern illusion that anarchism is no different from fashionable leftism. If Molly were to give a "corrective" to this I would suggest that every would-be "anarchist" adopt at least ONE position that is at variance with the leftist subculture and defend it vigorously. The actual content doesn't matter. The reaction of the leftists will be the education that is needed. Adopting such a position would provide a bridge to maintaining anarchist opinions in the world that faces a person "after graduation", if for no other reason that it would provide training in "being contrary".
As I said above there are very few "middle-aged" people active in anarchism in most countries today. This may be understandable as people enter their reproductive and career-building stage of life. Nobody who hasn't had children can appreciate the great, humungous time-sucking commitment that this requires. To be quite frank it is entirely understandable-and admirable in Molly's view- that the preservation of one's genetic heritage should take precedence over any political ideology, anarchism included. The alternative is a cancerous growth of belief that would lead to immense suffering, as the disastrous career of murderous Marxism has proven in the last century.

Still, it is sad that so few of our younger recruits manage to carry their anarchism on into their further life- beyond that they decide to extend their adolescense into middle age (cheered on by a tiny minority of evil people enscounced in the anarchist movement who encourage such actions for profit-you know the type). THIS is a failing that a mature anarchism will eventually correct. Whether it be by the gradual building of anarchosyndicalist unions that offer people an opportunity to carry their anarchism forward into the real world- something that is being done as we speak. Wherther it be by the formulation of long term plans such as the platformists are trying to do today. Whether it be by the gradual growth of other anarchist alternatives that aim for long term growth. All these things come together, and they are considerations that anarchists should think about if they are not enraptured with the illusion of "revolution" or, worse, simply sticking their finger up the nose of ordinary people as certain primitivist and "post-leftist" sectarians do.


We all eventually reach this point, and many who first came to anarchism in the late 60s/early 70s, have done so already. Such is Molly's sad situation. As such she gets to observe such atrocities as "presuned elders" of the anarchist movement who have been alive less than the time that she has been active advocating the continuation of silly, self destructive tactics that, incidentaly, will rebound to the financial benefit of the advocates. The advantage of age is to be able to cynically recognize crooks because one has seen their like dozens of times before. The disadvantage is that we get stuck in the thought patterns of our youth. Memory is not thought. It may be an advantage to recognize patterns that were great and gross failures before, and the same "justifications" that are offered for them today which are the same as those offered years ago. The example of "kindergarden terrorism" was mentioned before.

What is sad is that there is little "opportunity" offered for older people in anarchism today. Most older anarchists, when retirement finally comes about, immerse themselves in the struggles of ordinary people that have little connection to anarchism. In some ways this is a great thing, as they carry the struggle into exactly where it should be, amongst people that younger anarchists are often too snotty to approach. The gradual growth of anarchism means that there will be an increasing number of such people who will spread the anarchist idea in a much more efficient way than flashy demonstrations can. But it is still sad that there is so little interchange between this older generation-who now exist in greater numbers than they did when I first became an anarchist-and the younger people who come to anarchism imagining that it was invented with punk rock.

So what does this mean in terms of "why anarchist projects fail" ? The limitations of projects initiated by younger people whose life situations are inherantly unstable should be obvious. To make them survive the "graduation" of their founders requires exquisite planning that often-usually- is not possible. The limitations of anarchism in "middle-age" are also obvious, and they will only be overcome by gradual growth, something that younger people don't see as necessary. As to older anarchists one may say that they should very much carry on as they do now, but perhaps they should make a greater effort to reach out to (and if necessary argue with) younger anarchists who are in need of their experience.


Nicolas said...

Interesting tough.

A while ago, I remember reading an argument in a book published by the french Federation anarchiste. The author was complaining that to be an anarchist you had no other choice then to be a militant. You could not be an anarchist the same way one is a communist or a social-democrat. In other word, you cannot just support the movement and give an hand here and there. To be involved you have to be fully involved (that is, full-time...).

I think one of the key is to make room for people with responsability to get involved. In other words, to find a way people can be anarchists like other are social-democrats. My only answer to this is organisation.

To be fair, we're not yet into a multigenerational organisation right now. But I've witness my comrades grow older and stick around. I'm 32, I have full-time job and I have 2 kids. 4 other members of my local are in the same situation. We've been able to stick to our guns by rethinking what it meant to be active. In the past, like everyone else, we we're an activist group that was high demanding on it's members. But now we've decided we want to be there for the long run and we have a better idea of what our respectives limits are. It's increasingly difficult to organise with other anarchists (because they follow an activist model that lead them to periodic burn-out) but we are still there and still active.

Our local have a minimum work plan that is always in function: answer the mail, publish the newspaper regularly, attend local events to agitate, update the blog and staff the radio show. If and when we have the time and energy, we organise actions or campain. And we meet only as necessary (once a month).

Our biggest challenge ahead is to find a way to tap on all those older anarchists who are "lost and on their own" in the social movements. Another challenge will be to keep recruiting youths. Finaly, and it's the biggest challenge, we need to develop an infrastructure that enable people to support the organisation and have a real input without becoming full-fledge members.

In my opinion, there are a number of keys to be able to become a multigenerational movement. The most important are the issue of stability, the issue of having a level of activity that is sustainable over the long term and finaly the issue of being able to use the time, energy and talent that everyone is able to contribute.

Larry Gambone said...

Perhaps anarchism - or at least anarchist ideas - have to become wide spread enough to influence a number of communities. Carara (sp?) in Italy was one of these, even surviving the Fascists. Here in BC there are a number of places, The Kootenays, some of the Gulf Islands where there are three generations of counter-cultural people live and take part in the various cooperatives, community enterprizes and environmental struggles. Only a minority of these people - (a SMALL minority!) would consider themselves anarchists, but the existence of an inter-generational continuity and community shows that it could be possible here among anarchists, if we increase our numbers.
I think it should be asked why three generations of counter-culturals exist. How is it that so many of the 20-40 year old children of 60's activists (in BC at least) continue to live like their parents, and their children, our generations grand children, seem to be doing the same? First off, the first generation of this trigenerational phenomenon was made up of the most competant, sanest members of the 1960's counter-culture – not the flakes. Secondly, it is simply a better way to live, and I think this is of primary importance. Thirdly, there was enough of the counter-culture in existence throughout the 1980's and 90's that one could actually belong to a community and the children did not feel isolated and swamped by corporate propaganda.
Thus anarchism in order to stick has to 1. be made up of sane and competent people 2. Be seen as a better way to live by those who come in contact with it and 3. have a critical mass in some region, town or neighborhood.

Larry Gambone said...

I also agree with Nicholas that organization is one of the keys. Anarchism in Canada has -up till the formation of groups like NEFAC and Common Cause - has been very amorphous, with most people not belonging to any organization. It is thus easy for people to get lost. What groups have been formed came and went like mushrooms. Continuity of organization is definitely important. And as Nicholas also says, avoiding burn-out is another.

Anonymous said...

I will pop the big balloon that you've inflated by pointing out that you cite no demographic data to back up your analysis. You are simply blowing lots of hot air here. It would be quite easy to provide counter-anecdotes that there are indeed a large number of middle age and older anarchists out there. Just because they don't wear black and go to anarchist events doesn't mean that they aren't out there, being involved in local, community and workplace organizations.

Larry opines that more organization is the answer. How dreadfully unimaginative. I've been part of plenty of highly structured anarchist organizations. They usually end up being ineffective and insular, because they are controlled by a few idiots who are interested in maintaining some anarchist orthodoxy. You guys are hitting close to the target with your comments here, but arguing that more organization is the answer is one step above retarded. If you have any actual experience in anarchist organizations, scenes or movements, you'll know that the true problems involve more than just having "more organization." It's fucking easy to create an anarchist organization. It's much harder to address the organizational dynamics that are endemic TO ALL VOLUNTEER-BASED ORGANIZATIONS, anarchist or not.

You guys will start having better anarchist organizations when you stop yammering about "organization" all of the time.

Anonymous said...

The only place that anarchy is actually working is Somalia right now.

Unfortunately the socialist and other democratic 'governments' are eager to end that state. Of course the West is too. "Gosh we might have terrorists or something if we let anarchy run free! We need a strong central government or terrorists will thrive"! -- ah shucks baby ... are we now advocating socialism? If you understand both, you know they are not compatible.

Therein lies the dilemma of anarchy. Anyone who can suggest it is viable along with socialism begets their ignorance.

Which leads to the bottom line. The reason anarchy rarely gets far is because there a a bunch of dummies thinking that the enemy is capitalism and the friend is socialism. Yet if one looks at all logically it is clear that anarchy and capitalism is a much more natural fit than anarchy and anything else.

Larry Gambone said...

"but arguing that more organization is the answer is one step above retarded. If you have any actual experience in anarchist organizations, scenes or movements, you'll know that the true problems involve more than just having "more organization." It's fucking easy to create an anarchist organization...They usually end up being ineffective and insular, because they are controlled by a few idiots who are interested in maintaining some anarchist orthodoxy...

Thanks for the comradely way of addressing people you disagree with. Your tactfulness is most charming. No doubt with such an approach you are a hot-shot organizer. None of us here are retarded, and as for experience I have been involved in anarchist organizations since 1968 and am familiar with European organizations like the FAF and CGT-e. Both Nicholas and Mol;ly also have lots of experience as well.

Forming a LASTING anarchist organization has not been easy. Disorganization has been a particular problem in the North American milieu.

As for "ineffective and insular" and "controlled by a few idiots." this is plainly not the case with organizations like the FAF, CGT=E, etc.

I do agree however that one cannot make a blanket claim about a lack of middle aged anarchos. It may depend upon the area. Here in BC there are a fair number of us silver-backs.

Anonymous said...

To echo Larry, and with my own "sweet" way of putting in as somebody who was once a "legend" amongst the bikers of Regina for biting off part of a guy's ear in a bar fight in Regina and winning a fight aginst a guy who had over foot over me. I have two hands. Each has a middle finger. You can perch on both of them if you like. As I have expressed before, I am far less tolerant than Larry is and far more agressive. It's all the difference between a Labrador (Larry) and a Chow (me). Different genes. But it doesn't mean that we will be less kind to those who deserve such kindness- most ordinary people do, while anti-organizational "quack-anarchists" do not.
I tried to reply at length to the responses to this post, but I forgot that Blogger will eliminate such things. I'll try to reply in short bursts as time goes on- and I intend to post further installments of "why anarchist organizations fail".

Til then... I intend to be far more offensive to right wing libertarians (the least offensive thing to me), silly post-anarchists and Maosist, leftist idiots(the worst of all things in my mind) than Larry could possibly be. It ain't in his genes. It's in mine, and there are enough of us "nasty people" to block the efforts of thugs to either divert anarchism or to con people into believing that anarchism is something other than what it actually is. Happy bite wounds suckers.
Molly the Pit Bull

Collectif anarchiste La Nuit (NEFAC-Québec) said...

I dont know if Molly is blowing hot air or not about this generation thing. What I do know is that this is my feeling. While there are middle aged and older anarchists out there they tend to be few and far in between and I have yet to see a trully multigenerational movement / scene anywhere in North America. My concrete experience is that groups / projects / organisations tend to mainly be generational things.

I should have qualified my comment about "organisation". I just did not mean any kind of organisation, I was actually speacking of political organisation (i.e. anarchist federations). Even more specificaly, I was speacking of organisation that unite folks from different cities and town.

Every volontary organisation comes with up's and down's. There's no actual receipe to make it work over the long term. In addition to what I already said, I would add that having concrete projects (such as a newspaper) and not being localised help a lot.

Anonymous said...

"who deserve such kindness- most ordinary people do, while anti-organizational "quack-anarchists" do not."

What the fuck is an anti-organizational quack anarchist? Are these people really a bugaboo for you? If they are holding your organizations back, then I wonder how you handle the more mundane challenges of running an organization. I know a few so-called "anti-organizationalists." They run better and more long-lasting collective projects than the people who get all worked up about their so-called anti-organizationalism.

"It's in mine, and there are enough of us "nasty people" to block the efforts of thugs to either divert anarchism or to con people into believing that anarchism is something other than what it actually is. Happy bite wounds suckers."

Thugs that are diverting anarchism? Do you really believe this? How fucking unanarchist! Anarchism has long been a movement of tendencies which respect the right of different kinds of anarchism to exist. It sounds very leftist of you to be upset about anarchism being diverted down the wrong path. It's a good thing that most anarchists don't share your obsessions.

Anonymous said...

"Forming a LASTING anarchist organization has not been easy. Disorganization has been a particular problem in the North American milieu."

There are plenty of long-lasting anarchist organizations around North America. How long has AK Press been around? 15+ years? How about infoshops and bookstores like Bound Together, Left Bank Books and the Lucy Parsons Center? How about long-running anarchist conferences like NCOR in Washington, DC? IF anything, the reality is that North America has lots of lasting anarchist organizations.

"As for "ineffective and insular" and "controlled by a few idiots." this is plainly not the case with organizations like the FAF, CGT=E, etc."

I don't know anything about these groups, but the problems I describe are endemic to anarchist organizations at some point in time. If you are going to seriously address your question about why anarchist organizations don't last longer, you have to recognize that the issue isn't organization per se, but the mundane challenges involved in running an anarchist organization.

All anarchists are typically involved with an anarchist organization of some kind. If you are talking about anarchist organizations that do nothing but preach anarchism, then that's an entirely diferrent issue.

Larry Gambone said...

Of course, such anarchist organizations as book shops, presses etc exist and a very good thing too. I have been involved in such since '68 myself. But this is not the type of organization we are talking about. We are referring more to federations, good examples of which are the French Anarchist Federation, the Italian Anarchist Communist Federation and the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation. Such groups are well implanted and have a fairly lengthy history. The FAF alone has 50 groups - virtually all the major cities in France with a total of 600 or so members. They become a pole of attraction for militants. Here to day-gone tomorrow organizations do not do this. Canada and the US are too large and do not have a well implanted anarchist movement to have national federations. However groups like NEFAC are creating a good regional presence. Nor are such federations merely "preaching anarchism" but are organized in working place and community struggles.