Radical Principles vs. Poisonous Politics

It would be nice to always see “the big picture”, to be able to act fully informed, to see every angle. You could then act on a case by case basis, always sure that you were not being misled or manipulated, that you were not wasting your energy or working against your own interests.

In life, however, such happy circumstances rarely if ever present themselves. We often must act on partial information, on rumour or hunches. We risk being wrong, and having our own efforts prove to be detrimental to our own goals. We thought we were advancing, only to learn later that we were heading down a blind alley.

To the degree that this is so, that we cannot be sure that our next step is actually bringing us closer to our destination, principles, including but not limited to morals or ethics, become important. Principles establish a way of acting and relating, a methodology or stance, and by acting in a principled manner we become better at adopting this stance, one which will serve us well even if it was first developed in the service of some dead-end activity in the past.

This does not have to be some grand exercise with deep moral implications (though it can be). It may be as simple as taking ourselves seriously. For instance, if we are working on some campaign, just the fact of learning to be on time, to do the work we promise to do, to not dominate conversations or allow them to be dominated, will all serve us well in the longterm even if at some point we realize the campaign we were working on was ill-advised. That stance or principle of being a responsible comrade is worth developing regardless.

i normally don’t write about the pissing contests and sectarian shit between activists, in part because it’s demoralizing, and in part because it can often feed the noise, contributing to problems that i have found do some harm both to activists and to the radical scene in general. Plus, i myself have been involved in a fair number of squabbles, some of them intensely unpleasant, and i don’t want to allow this blog to become a part of that.

Nevertheless, at times it’s irresponsible not to say what you think. If you’re wrong, speaking out gives others an opportunity to correct you and thus you have an opportunity to learn. And if you’re right, then the responsibility is obvious.

So here it goes.

John Zerzan, an anarcho-primitivist intellectual, is coming to speak at Montreal’s anarchist bookfair this weekend. Zerzan is not only against class society and the state (like all good anarchists) he also holds some beliefs most people find shocking, namely that the key technical advances people have made – literacy, music, metal-working, agriculture – were all bad things which led us to the oppressive society we live in today.

To be clear, i disagree with Zerzan. i’m not going to critique him here, because that’s not the point of this post, but i find his ideas unconvincing, no matter how intriguing they might be on a science-fiction level.

Furthermore, i tend to have little in common with so-called “primitivists” and “post-leftists”, those anarchists who find Zerzan most useful. Often these folks are amongst the most narrow minded when it comes to dealing with other currents of the left or learning from the real experiences of the oppressed. Their arrogance can be phenomenal, breath taking in fact. While i have friendly exchanges with some primitivists who i meet briefly in other cities, i think i’m probably on bad terms with every single primitivist in Montreal, and happy to stay that way.

It is because i disagree with Zerzan, and because i am less than chummy with “primitivists” locally, that i feel i have to publicly express how disgusted i am with the post-situationist “hors d’oeuvre” website, which has publicly posted threats to Zerzan, warning him not to come to Montreal because it’s “primitivist season”. The folks behind this website are doing the state’s work with shit like this.

i am also concerned at the email circulating calling for a demonstration against Zerzan outside the bookfair. As i said at the beginning of this post, i do not know what everyone’s angle is, and i don’t know what connection this demo and the “Coalition for Progress in the Anarchist Milieu” which organized it have to the “hors d’oeuvre” website. However, the wording of the email in question (also posted to CMAQ), which calls for a “war” against Zerzan, manages to combine macho posturing with a very superficial critique.

Within the radical milieu, threats of violence or even just exclusion of those we disagree with have to be justified. In the case of people with coercive personal behaviour, or people who make the scene unsafe or unfriendly through their sexism, racism, or other shit, there is sometimes a place for threats or actual violence to get rid of them (although over the past ten years a number of groups have pioneered more interesting strategies). But that is not the case here.

As for the idea of demonstrating against Zerzan at the bookfair, with the view that he should not be allowed to speak, one has to wonder what will be gained. While such an action will certainly underscore the fact that not all anarchists are “primitivists”, and that there may be unresolvable contradictions between the “primitivists” and the rest of us, don’t most of us know that already? If the idea is to challenge Zerzan’s ideas, couldn’t that be done in the form of debate, which the workshop he is giving would seem to facilitate?

Like i said above, i’m not a Zerzanite, i’m not a primitivist. i don’t have to be, in order to think that using threats to solve political disagreements within the radical left is reactionary. Similarly, if one is a part of a campaign in which others are making threats, one has a responsibility to denounce this behaviour. To not do so means one risks discrediting oneself.

Finally, on a strategic level, nothing could please the police more than this kind of setup, whereby a public call is made to demonstrate against an anarchist event, where public threats are made. Not only do such threats undermine solidarity and poison the political culture in which resistance is grounded, they can also serve as a pretext for surveillance, repression and suppression.

Living in an imperialist country, riddled with sexism and racism and a moribund culture, we certainly cannot prefigure a communist or anarchist society in the here and now. It’s an uphill battle, and it’s bound to fail. But in trying to do so, and persisting in these efforts despite inevitable failure, all the while taking up the necessary work as best we can, we develop a stance, a set of principles, which will serve us well.

If we stop trying to do so, one has to ask – what’s the fucking point?


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