The unity of the left is a strange beast that often rears it’s confused head, telling anarchists that we have to come play nicely alongside the political parties and representative trade unions of the authoritarian left, then resorts to calling us “stand-offish” when we don’t fall into line peacefully.
Even some anarchists drift into these groups with the best of intentions. After all can’t we see that there is a common enemy to be taken care of and that the only way we can beat them is to create a mass movement together? Well, no.
If these coalitions are not organised using a directly democratic model then the results are unlikely to empower individuals to take action or provide them with the best experience by which to develop their confidence to plan/take action. Instead these new initiatives will reproduce the oppressive nature of our dominant society and act to shift the reliance we have on existing structures onto the organising committee or leadership of the group involved. Anarchists who do involve themselves in these conferences and coalitions often find themselves under the same pressures that socialist parties find themselves in when engaging with parliamentary systems – they are marginalised, flattered or cajoled into being dominated by the majority or give up the core of their principals for the charade of unity and a place at the leaders table.
Not Simply a Numbers Game
While I do see the need to spread anarchist ideas and methodology to as many people as possible, we also have to take care and ensure our actions develop The Three C’s for everyone involved. We need the ideas themselves to take the lead in people’s minds through showing their benefits and taking action with them, not because of a decision being taken that you have only the most remote engagement with.
Lets look at that mainstay of leftist protest: The Big March. While this is a tactic that can be used to great effect, the way in which these are deployed in an almost ritualistic fashion have the potential to reduce participants confidence in taking any future action if it fails to have any result, it can blinker the competence to make good decisions over which actions are worth being taken in the future, and the consciousness of left parties and representative unions role in maintaining the status quo may be hidden under the premise that we just need more people then this will work.
I am constantly amazed when I look at local leftist groups and how little they are achieving with membership ranging from several dozen up into hundreds in a single local group. While they have a lot of meetings, committees, create reams of propaganda, and put a HUGE amount of effort into membership building, their output is equivalent of what a tiny anarchist group achieves with a fraction of the resources to hand.
To me it is clear that tactics involving big numbers are viable, but only when they have been built on a long campaign rooted in the community and led by the direct input of those effected. The whole numbers game when controlled by a hierarchical leadership works only for elitist ends and is a displacement of resources away from the work needed to engage social change within our communities. Instead energy is focused inwardly, isolating the ideas needed to change society from the people who need make the change while simultaneously ignoring the people who would know how best they wish to act. Ultimately the huge effort being expended is futile.
The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend?
Looking at the groups we are being asked to enter into coalitions with you could almost make a better case for them working alongside the Tory party than anti-parliamentary socialists.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and many of its erstwhile loyal supporters (right up to the moment they broke away) in the ISG and Counterfire, have a long history of undermining direct action being taken by groups most effected as a means to show their ability to control actions and attempt to leverage political power as “representatives of the working class” while proposing themselves as a “revolutionary leadership”. They have a well deserved reputation for starting coalitions as a front for recruitment before abandoning them once they feel no more can be gained from the alliance (even during key campaigns). Recently the handling of a case of rape within the SWP has shown that the party as a whole has some deep cultural problems that would need to be acknowledged and addressed by them before any joint action should even be given the slightest entertainment. I don’t expect any group to be free of the problems of our dominant society. I do expect them to try and act in a way that does not re-enforce the dominance of our rape culture.
Fight Racism Fight Imperialism (FRFI), while acting as sponsor to many front groups, is itself a front for the Revolutionary Communist Group. This group still try to
cover up play down the internment and execution of queer individual in concentration camps in Cuba and until 2003 was affiliated with groups that held that homosexuality was a counter-revolutuonary bourgeois affectation. Even now they have some worrying (anti)feminist politics. And yes, this was their most recent article on feminism I could find, and to be honest I reckon you would have to travel back to the seventies to get four women to put their names to that bullshit. By this timeframe they should be starting to talk about intersectionality sometime about 2076. Their continued support for brutal and inhumane “communist” dictatorships around, their cultish “cadre system” of membership, and their habit of turning any demo they get involved with into a circus makes it difficult to have any working relationship with them.
The representative unions of the (S)TUC and the Labour party share a history of betrayal of the working class, advancement of the capitalist agenda, and of undermining popular movements as has been demonstrated in many books. In short they are mediators of capital and so as a whole do not work with the interest of the working class no matter what they say come election time. They will usually try to buy or bluff their way into campaigns, set up their own “alternatives” against the local consensus, or claim any success for themselves.
Spectres of the Past
While it may not seem like a big deal to other leftists, historically there is a precedent that these coalitions are most successful when they are organised by anarchist ideals. The Paris Commune, The Russian Revolution, Revolutionary Catalonia, Occupy Wall Street. All coalition situations where a major factor in their initial success is due to the deployment of anarchist methods. This is something we should take note of and try and learn from, understanding which of the tactics we deployed were successful, why they worked, and which areas we should develop or discard.
Unfortunately the second precedent we need to learn from the past is that in all these coalitions the anarchists where made scapegoats to anything that goes wrong, that or we are rounded up and shot when the authoritarian left makes a move to assert control over the situation.
Looking at the history of coalition politics, anarchists are worth more to the authoritarian left in their hunt for legitimacy to assume control than we will gain from our involvement with them. Trust me, if we are doing things right then it won’t be long until one or more of the authoritarian leftist groups will turn up like the proverbial bad penny and try and lay claim to the work we have just done; whether it is the NUS retroactively taking the reigns of the student movement, trade unions that were conspicuously absent during grass-roots campaigns turning up with propaganda and flags when the media are about, or Trots diverting people away from taking direct action to listen to them rant.
Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
So, given all the negative talk about alliances above what do I think anarchists should be doing?
Well, the first thing to think on before compromising your politics is to find a revolutionary organisation or group to directly involve yourself with that (for the most part) shares your politics. Get a feel for working with a group on some activities that you don’t have to make compromises on the big stuff, but where you get to refine your politics and really test out the details of action and develop your own confidence, competence and consciousness while having the space to make mistakes.
If a community group or a workplace is already organising along directly democratic means and calls for solidarity then respect their autonomy. Enter into work with them openly. Don’t try to to actively recruit for your group or suggest branding their campaigns with your logo unless you are invited to do so. Even then, be respectful and let your actions do the talking. Your morals and methods can be added as a current in all situations while being argued for and demonstrated – what anarchists call a Leadership of Ideas.
‘Anarchism is organisation, organisation and more organisation.’
– Errico Malatesta
If and when the question of formal coalition with other groups is raised be up-front and realistic about the form of organisation it will take, the people that are going to be involved, and the likely outcomes of any activity that will be taken. Look at the groups involved and be honest with yourself about how they have acted in the past. A demo called by the Boycott Workfare campaign, the IWW, AFed, SolFed or another group organised roughly along anarchist principals is far more likely to involve methods of organisation and acceptable compromises that everyone can live with and so create a true unity of purpose compared with some of the coalitions comprised of both anarchist and authoritarian groups which always leave one side lacking. That said if you feel that you can all get behind a cause and the actions won’t act to prevent prefigation of your ideas, then go for it!
Finally, don’t be afraid to walk away. In these circumstances clear communication of your reasons for doing so to all involved at a base level is important. There is no point making a principled walk-out if the people left in charge are able to lie about your reasons for doing so. Be sure to keep clear channels of dialogue open and if you think there is going to be some fall-out for those allies still stuck inside of the coalition try and create structures of support to help anyone trying to untangle themselves from the mess.
Idealism is the true spectre of communism. If this gives anarchists a reputation of being stand-offish or too principled then I suggest that anarchists hold their course until we are presented with better reasoned choices than Marxism or name-calling. Sure, we have to compromise some points, everyone does. Just don’t allow the failure in other political groups methods set-back The Three C’s in yourself or those around you because as long as we are all moving forward we are getting closer to the better world we deserve.