This is the third in a series of articles by Matt Crossin, ‘Critical Notes on Developments in the Anarchist Movement’. New articles in the series will be published in coming weeks.
The ‘classical’ period of anarchism, which can be defined as lasting from the foundation of the St. Imier ‘anarchist’ International in 1872 to the end of the Second World War in 1945, had two significant currents. ‘Mass’ or ‘Social’ anarchism, represented by anarcho-syndicalism (the formation of anarchist union federations) and dual organisationalism (the formation of specific anarchist organisations intervening in mass struggles), was overwhelmingly dominant, and traces its lineage through the St. Imier Congress, to the libertarian wing of the First International, and other federalist precursors within the workers’ movement.1 Opposed to this was the minority current of ‘insurrectionary’ anarchism, which saw the developing workers’ movement as reformist (and reforms themselves of dubious worth), opposed formal organisations as inconsistent with anarchism, and limited itself to tactics intended to provoke widespread insurrection: armed attacks against the State and property, assassination of politicans and bosses, etc.
Insurrectionary anarchism found new life with the decline of the international workers’ movement in the late 1970s. Radical forms of rank-and-file power were repressed. Unions managed by professionalised bureaucracies, committed to the stability of the capitalist system (including their cushy position within it), and generally subservient to the interests of affiliated political parties, accepted the integration of organised labour within highly regulated, legalistic channels of dispute management, which criminalised effective direct action and restricted workers’ control over the struggle.2
Rather than recognize the turn from law-defying militancy to legalistic impotence as an outcome requiring a renewed commitment to the long and patient work of workplace agitation, some revolutionaries chose to accept the more convenient narrative that this historic tragedy had been inevitabile. Our position as ‘workers’ – individuals forged by capitalist development into a class, but capable of becoming a class that acts for itself – was supposedly ‘no longer relevant’ to emancipation.
Insurrectionists claim that the struggle over production ultimately led to bureaucratisation and an accommodation with class society. From their perspective, there is, therefore, no point in attempting to collectively identify as an oppressed class of ‘workers’, or organise mass organisations of struggle on that basis. Indeed, insurrectionary anarchists oppose all forms of formal organisation and are often sceptical of the idea of ‘organisation’ itself. They argue that specific projects require nothing more than informal ‘affinity groups’: close comrades working together to achieve concrete goals, without any ongoing structure or political programme.
But if we are not struggling as an organised class at work, where should such affinity groups be engaged in struggle? Insurrectionists have typically advocated a politics of ‘constant attack’. They relish in the images of street fights with police, the lighting of fires, and looting of stores. As with the neo-anarchist politics of Occupy, the point of struggle is generally seen as the street, or the public space, carved out as an experiment in ‘autonomy’. But where the neo-anarchist finds freedom in the self-management of a tent-city or community garden, today’s insurrectionist seems to find it in the act of rebellion itself; the demonstration of their supposed ungovernability. The insurrectionist and their ‘crew’ steal a bag of groceries to feed the hungry, and keep the cops at bay when they try to stop them.
It’s obviously a good thing to feed someone who is hungry and we have no objections to breaking the law, but this is a strange idea of freedom. It assumes the insurmountable permanence of a society based on the existence of bosses, governments, and commodities. It proposes that we act as if capital and the State can never really be overthrown through a concrete transformation of social relations in production. Things can’t be changed, they can only be subverted or defied.
The most far-sighted of insurrectionists view riots, assassination, and property destruction as a sort of propaganda by example, or ‘propaganda of the deed’. These are intended as initiating events, sparked by courageous minorities, which they hope may spiral into general insurrections against the government; freeing us from the drudgery of a life spent at work and any risk of a ‘return to normality’.3
With the George Flloyd Rebellion the politics of insurrectionary anarchism was put to a serious test. The insurrectionists were presented with a nation-wide uprising which broke from legality and the control of any organisation. Police stations were attacked and stores looted. A multi-racial coalition of the working class took to the streets, arm in arm, to face down the cops. In the so-called ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ (CHAZ), an entire neighbourhood block was cleared of police, and established as a space for cooperative projects (such as a ‘Black and Indigenous only’ community garden) as well as an open-mic for ongoing debate.
The ‘CHAZ’ (which, in reality, was never able to develop beyond a cop-free block-party) quickly stagnated, with no clear aims other than maintaining the occupation. The affinity groups attempted to maintain the rage, but were unable to encourage the rebellion in a revolutionary direction.
Things soon ended in chaos and disaster.4 All manner of cranks and adventurists were attracted to the project. Liberal notions of ‘privilege politics’ – a shallow understanding of identity-based domination – were aggressively pushed, undermining the new links of solidarity.5 Ultimately, a few armed individuals (having appointed themselves as a ‘patrol’) fired on and killed a few black teenagers speeding by in their car. Amidst the fog of uncertainty, vague reports spread on social media, exciting those who equate the use of arms with militancy. The killings were initially lauded in some insurrectionist corners of the internet as a successful case of ‘revolutionary self-defence’ against ‘right-wing infiltrators’.6
Across the United States insurrection gradually turned to legal, managed protest. The militancy of the initial outburst vanished without having established any organisational forms or strategy suitable for its reproduction, let alone escalation. Minneapolis’s Third Precinct was burnt to the ground, windows were smashed, and the goods from looted stores shared amongst grieving communities. But police, prisons, capitalist firms, and commodity production remain. The capitalists continue to be a possessing class in need of the State, and the State – itself the owner of so much of the means of production – continues to require a system of property to reproduce itself and the privileges of political rule.
These social relations can not be smashed or blown up in the streets. They can’t be abolished by simply attacking the individuals who rule over us. They can only be transformed at their root, within the sphere of production, through the expropriation of property and the forceful destruction of the State.
The uprising of 2020 no doubt marks a significant moment. The experience transformed the thinking of many who took part, or even witnessed it. The unparalleled expression of solidarity with Palestinains under Israeli assault just a year later was in no small part due to a popular shift in consciousness around racial domination. The militant opposition to the police also deepened their ongoing recruitment crisis. This has intensified the cycle in which the institution nakedly exposes its authoritarian character, as it is disproportionately the most fascistic who continue to be attracted to the profession.
But as the writer Shemon Salam asked in the aftermath of the Rebellion, “In what sense are riots a path towards revolution if they simply cannot generalize to the point of production, unless the latter is no longer needed”? “Good luck getting food once the grocery store is looted empty.”7
Likewise, Tristan Leoni’s insightful analysis of the Gilet Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement in France leads us to the same conclusion:
[The Yellow Vests] targeted circulation rather than production. Yet blocking means blocking other people’s work. It is only because some workers produce goods and others transport them that the blockade has any “impact”: in other words, blocking is the result of a minority, because the majority does not go on strike. By definition, the sphere of circulation is not central, it is upstream and downstream of production […] In May 68, when 10 million workers were on strike, there was no more flow to block! Therefore, to make revolution, blocking or stopping production is not enough […] it is necessary to change production from top to bottom (and therefore most likely to do away with a lot of it), as well as changing the social relationships that come with it. This is rather difficult if you only rebel in your spare time.8
With the rise in strike activity across the world – inside of the unions, outside of them, and even against the wishes of union bureaucrats – it is interesting to note that the insurrectionists have gotten rather quiet about the ‘irrelevance’ of class-based organisation. We are even hearing less about the supposed sufficiency of affinity groups!
Who could possibly argue now that the George Flloyd Rebellion would have been ‘bureaucratized’ by the participation of anarchists, belonging to anarchist organisations, encouraging activity in accordance with a shared anarchist analysis and programme? Who would object to the movement having shifted from street battles over ‘autonomous’ roads and parks, to the occupation and repurposing of essential supply chains under workers’ control? Can it really be doubted that organised workers, federated in solidarity, and capable of wielding their shared technical knowledge of their respective industries against capitalist production itself, would be better prepared for such an uprising?
Short of revolution, such a development would have terrified the ruling classes far more than all the burning cop cars put together.
Accepting that this is the case, insurrectionary anarchists would benefit from revisiting some of the thoughts expressed by one of their more serious thinkers: the Italian revolutionary Alfredo M. Bonanno.
Bonanno’s most famous work, Armed Joy (1977), is in many ways representative of insurrectionary anarchist writings. Certainly, it reflects all of the shortcomings that entails, the most blatant of which is the tendency to write in an overwrought and pretentious style. The pamphlet is notable, however, in that – when not simply reducing our class struggle politics to either a strawman of conservative syndicalism, or an opportunistic tailing of social movements – it concedes so much to the mass-anarchist analysis.
Armed Joy dismisses “meetings”, the “rigid model of the frontal attack on capitalist forces”, and efforts to “take over the means of production” through a system of “self-management”. Bonanno makes clear that he is much more impressed by those who simply, “make love, smoke, listen to music, go for walks, sleep, laugh, play, kill policemen, lame journalists, kill judges, blow up barracks” etc. And yet, Bonanno does recognize the need for “the self-organisation of producers at the workplace”, so as to realize communism: “The affirmation that man can reproduce and objectify himself in non-work through the various solicitations that this stimulates in him”. For Bonanno, communism is a mode of production in which:
production would no longer be the dimension in which man determines himself, as that would come about in the sphere of play and joy… it would be possible to stop producing at any moment, when there is enough.9
The most contrarian of insurrectionists can pretend otherwise, but if Bonanno’s words are to have any coherence at all, this amounts to ‘a frontal attack on capitalist forces’, ‘taking over the means of production’, and communist ‘self-management’ – as articulated by the classical mass-anarchist movement.
The parallels with mass-anarchist thought (particularly of the dual organisationalist, or ‘platformist’ kind) are even clearer in other works by Bonanno, such as those which outline a strategy based on ‘production nuclei’. For example, In the pamphlet A Critique of Syndicalist Methods he argues in favour of:
direct struggle organised by the base; small groups of workers who attack the centres of production. This would be an exercise in cohesion for further developments in the struggle which could come about following the obtaining of increasingly detailed information and the decision to pass to the final expropriation of capital, i.e. to the revolution.
He proceeds to assert that:
The economic situation could be organised without any oppressive structure controlling or directing it or deciding on the aims to be attained. This the worker understands very well. He knows exactly how the factory is structured and that, this barrier overcome, he would be able to work the economy in his own interest. He knows perfectly well that the collapse of this obstacle would mean the transformation of relationships both inside and outside the factory, the school, the land, and the whole of society. For the worker the concept of proletarian management is above all that of the management of production […] It is therefore control over the product which is lacking in this perspective, and with it decisions on lines of production, choices to be made, etc. […] What is required is to explain to him the way this mechanism could be brought about in a communist economy, how he can come into possession of as many products as are his “real” needs and how he can participate in “useful” production according to his own potential.
Who does Bonanno think should “explain” this? Not ‘privileged delegates’ or ‘salaried bureaucrats’, but rather “political animators”: “activist[s] [who] must work in the direction of the workers’ needs. “In other words, the militant minority of anarchists should encourage the development and activity of “[economic] federations of base organisations”, in accordance with the principles agreeable to us, in pursuit of both improvements (at work and outside of it) as well as social revolution.
Where exactly does Bonanno’s opposition to formal anarchist organisations figure into such a proposal? Does our role as “political animators”, or “activists”, become inevitably bureaucratizing if our organisations are committed to more than just singular, immediate tasks, and are guided by revolutionary programmes available for all to read?
Bonanno notes the risk of organisations prioritising their own reproduction as organisations over their supposed function. For mass-organisations, such as federations of workers associations, located at the point of struggle, the problem becomes one of potentially sacrificing the struggle in favour of self-preservation.
But this is not a unique insight of insurrectionary anarchism! And Bonanno knows this. Indeed, he approvingly quotes these words of the Dutch anarchist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis:
I am an anarchist before anything else, then a syndicalist, but I think that many are syndicalists first, then anarchists. There is a great difference… The cult of syndicalism is as harmful as that of the State…
As anarchist proponents of dual organisationalism have long argued, what is needed is the ongoing capacity for anarchists to maintain a consistent libertarian position; to be able to act independently of any mass-organisation, while still maintaining opportunities to intervene in the struggles of our fellow workers.
Bonanno cites the experience of the CNT in the Spanish Revolution as demonstrating the institutional and psychological danger posed by merging the specifically-anarchist movement with non-specific mass-organisations of direct struggle.10 The deference shown by so many workers to the collaborationist policies of the CNT, including permitting leading anarcho-syndicalists to take positions in government, is indicative of the need for the organisational independence of anarchists. This strategic approach best prepares us for circumstances in which we must break with the wavering positions of mass-organisations, both mentally and practically, and allows us to encourage a clear, revolutionary course within the movement; redirecting our energies wherever the self-organisation of the struggle takes us.
But Bonanno bolsters this argument with citations of… Malatesta! who argued that the anarchist union was either limited to anarchists, and therefore “weak and impotent, a mere propaganda group”, or built on a class basis, rendering “the initial program […] nothing but an empty formula.”11
This is Bonanno once again echoing dual organisationalism.12 The rest of his argument amounts to the mere insistence that anarchist organisations cannot help but become a bureaucratizing, counter-revolutionary force if they adopt a continuity of membership and an anarchist programme. He also makes the unsubstantiated claim that it is the form of ‘production nuclei’ which is uniquely immune to the tendencies inherent to unions; whether they are reformist, revolutionary syndicalist, or anarchist.
As unconvincing as this is, it is worth noting how far we are from ‘smoking weed, having sex, killing cops’ – or the slogans favoured by Bonanno’s contemporary admirers, calling for the ‘destruction of the economy’, ‘of production’, and the abandonment of old dreams, such as ‘revolutionary self-management’.
If insurrectionary anarchists – tired of endless riots, and disoriented by the return of organising on the shop floor – can bring themselves as far as Bonanno’s best work, perhaps they can also allow themselves to concede that the mass-anarchist tradition is something worth reviving.
Let the affinity group stick around; think together about the world and how to change it; write down your ideas and share them with comrades; talk with your co-workers about how to act against the boss; spread news of struggle everywhere; recognize where our power is within capitalist society, and use that power.
Let’s build the organisational capacity to struggle within our respective industries. In the process of that struggle, we can likewise build the capacity to (forgive the dusty old phrase) seize control of the means of production. This requires that we do all that we can to encourage the renewal of a militant workers movement, with rank-and-file control over the struggle, coordination across the economy, and links with radical social movements beyond the workplace.
For those interested in anarchy and communism, this remains the central task.
Further articles in this series
- ‘Anarchists and Dual Power: Situation and Strategy, Matt Crossin.
- Anarchists and Neo-anarchists: Horizontalism and Autonomous Spaces, Matt Crossin.
- Anarchists and Parliamentarianism: Elections and Social Change, Matt Crossin.
- For an introduction to the ideas of dual organisationalism, platformism, and especifismo, see Tommy Lawson’s pamphlet ‘Foundational Concepts of the Specific Anarchist Organisation’, published by Red and Black Notes: https://www.redblacknotes.com/2022/07/30/foundational-concepts-of-the-specific-anarchist-organisation/.
I also highly recommend Felipe Corrêa’s essays ‘Organizational Issues Within Anarchism’ (2010, Espaço Livre), available here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/felipe-correa-organizational-issues-within-anarchism, and ‘Bakunin, Malatesta and the Platform Debate: The question of anarchist political organization’ (2015, Institute for Anarchist Theory and History), co-written with Rafael Viana da Silva, and available here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/felipe-correa-and-rafael-viana-da-silva-bakunin-malatesta-and-the-platform-debate-the-question.
- This was often sold by governments and union leaders as a sacrifice necessary to resolve the economic crises of the period. It also supposedly offered the movement “a seat at the table”, or a “share in power”. In reality, the crisis was one of profitability, which could only end with the crushing of the labour movement, or a social revolution. By sacrificing the ability to take direct action for an illusory idea of power within the State, the labour movement accepted its own disorganisation and a major defeat. For an excellent study of this process as it occurred within Australia, through the form of ‘The Accord’, see Elizabeth Humphrys’ 2018 book How Labour Built Neoliberalism.
- “We have seen that the specific minority must take charge of the initial attack, surprising power and determining a situation of confusion which could put the forces of repression into difficulty and make the exploited masses reflect upon whether to intervene or not.” – Bonanno, A. M. 1982. ‘Why Insurrection?’. Insurrection. Available at: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-why-insurrection
- For a comradely critique of the CHAZ (or ‘CHOP’) project, see the analysis written by Black Rose Anarchist Federation members Glimmers of Hope, Failures of the Left: https://blackrosefed.org/chop-analysis-glimmers-hope-failures-left/. Perhaps even more interesting is the critical account from the CrimethInc collective, The Cop-Free Zone: Reflections from Experiments in Autonomy around the US: https://crimethinc.com/2020/07/02/the-cop-free-zone-reflections-from-experiments-in-autonomy-around-the-us.
Indeed, CrimethInc appears to be a collective in a period of transition. Once the favourite of dumpster-divers and purveyors of ‘riot porn’, they have increasingly become a reasonably reliable source for breaking news of working class uprisings around the world. They have even begun to engage more seriously with classical mass-anarchist history and theory, as in their great 2019 essay Against the Logic of the Guillotine: https://crimethinc.com/2019/04/08/against-the-logic-of-the-guillotine-why-the-paris-commune-burned-the-guillotine-and-we-should-too.
- Idris Robinson’s essay ‘How It Might Should Be Done’ (originally a talk; later published by Ill Will Editions) is justly scathing on this phenomenon:
There’s a lot of talk about how to end racism, especially within corporate and academic circles. We saw how to end racism in the streets the first weeks after George Floyd was murdered.
“It was only after the uprising began to slow down and exhaust itself that the gravediggers and vampires of the revolution began to reinstate racial lines and impose a new order on the uprising. The most subtle version of this comes from the activists themselves. Our worst enemies are always closest to us. You’ve all been in these marches, these ridiculous marches, where it’s, “white people to the front, black people to the center”—this is just another way of reimposing these lines in a more sophisticated way. What we should be aiming for is what we saw in the first days, when these very boundaries began to dissolve.”
Robinson’s essay can be read here: https://illwill.com/how-it-might-should-be-done. Another essay by Shemon Salam, ‘The Rise of Black Counter-Insurgency’ (also published by Ill Will) touches on similar issues and is likewise recommended: https://illwill.com/the-rise-of-black-counter-insurgency.
- One can’t help but recall the uncritical enthusiasm demonstrated by many insurrectionary anarchists during the 2014 Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine. Not only was there little interest in the political character of the struggle, but even in the influential presence of far-right elements. People were in the streets, in violent conflict with the brutality of the State… Molotovs were being thrown! ‘What else is there to a revolution?’ This is how an ‘anarchist’ thinks when they are not concerned with class struggle and the need to transform the structures of production and distribution.
- Salam, S. Breonna Taylor and the Limits of Riots’. Spirit of May 28. Available at: https://www.sm28.org/articles/breonna-taylor-and-the-limits-of-riots/. Salam’s argument recalls similar points made by Malatesta. See, for instance, his articles ‘The Products of Soil and Industry: An Anarchist Concern’ (El Productor, 1891, available at: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/errico-malatesta-the-products-of-soil-and-industry?v=1609149065) and ‘On ‘Anarchist Revisionism’’ (Pensiero e Volontà, 1924, available at: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/errico-malatesta-on-anarchist-revisionism).
- Leoni, T. 2019. Sur les Gilets Jaunes. Translation is from Gilles Dauvé’s equally important piece for troploin, ‘Yellow, Red, Tricolour, or: Class & People’. For Dauvé’s essay see: https://www.troploin.fr/node/98. Leoni’s work is available in French here: https://ddt21.noblogs.org/files/2019/11/GILETS-JAUNES-DDT21.VERSION-PDF-FINAL-novembre-2019.pdf
- All quotes from Bonanno, A. M. 1977. Armed Joy. Available here: https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-armed-joy.
- This is true whether we are concerned with unions or (Bonanno cannot avoid this!) ‘federations of production nuclei’.
- All quotes from Bonanno A. M. 1975. ‘A Critique of Syndicalist Methods’. Anarchismo. Available at: https://archive.elephanteditions.net/library/alfredo-m-bonanno-a-critique-of-syndicalist-methods.
- Or ‘synthesis organisation’ as Bonanno confusingly calls it. Typically, synthesis organisation refers to an approach in which anarchists of all types work together, without a specific shared analysis, programme, or strategic approach.