Riffs on the Brick: checking out the BRICK anarchist collective’s political statement
Jaybird 2 6/03
Okay, i agreed to kick in some marxist feedback on this anarchist statement, and immediately regretted it. Nothing personal, but organizational political statements usually show the worst, most official-sounding side of us. Stopped reading them years ago. But the BRICK anarchist collective’s Above and Below: Them, Them and Us is short, modest & to the point. i found it thought-provoking (both for what it said and for what it didn’t), with some gutsy ideas. Naturally, there’s lots to disagree with. And many questions. Want to make it clear that this critique is not going into two areas: their actual practice as a revolutionary collective (which i don’t know enough about to discuss) and the traditional marxist-leninist criticism of anarchist politics (which is a useful subject, but far too big a package to load onto this discussion–you’ve heard it already anyway, right?).
BRICK just says who they actually are–a local probably small anarchist collective in the Midwest very active in direct action struggles against the white fascists and the War (which is cool, instead of talking as though they were demanding to lead the World Revolution). There’s zero long baggage train of left sectarian history & traditions, which as a reader i was very grateful for. But it also made me uneasy, as though something critical was inadvertently being skipped (more on that later).
Above & Below: Them, Them & Us explicitly outlines the world situation not as “us versus them” (the traditional left view) but as a more fluid, more complex three-way struggle in which new forms of both rebellion and oppression appear. In particular they point to new forms in which a type of far right capitalism can win mass support for violent takeovers of street and state.
The world system of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state is going thru a monumental reorganization which involves a great deal of inner-ruling class competition. This has temporarily weakened it at points, providing openings for resistance from below. Roughly speaking we would divide the resistance into two camps: 1) authoritarian, and 2) autonomous and anarchist. The differences between the two general approaches and visions are significant, and cannot be bridged by a shared militancy. In fact, as anarchist revolutionaries, antifascists and radical feminists we understand our situation as a three-way fight. Them, Them, and Us.
My first reaction here is to really question this, to say that their use of “authoritarian” is too sweeping and vague, like the imperialists always equating Lenin with Hitler and anarchists with “terrorists”. But maybe when there’s smoke there’s not a smokescreen but a fire?. There is a worldwide right-left convergence of some sort taking place, where authoritarian and reformist left tendencies are making alliances with or joining fascist/rightist racist elements.
Like, the 2000 elections here were decided not simply by vote fraud but by Ralph Nader and the Green Party entering into a secret cash alliance with old-line white supremacists to drain enough progressive protest support to throw key states like Florida to Bush 43. And, even knowing this, the ISO (Independent Socialist Organization) made campaigning for Nader/Green Party and forming bogus “Labor for Nader” committees a cynical, opportunist push. Helping to suppress news of the right-wing, white supremacist agenda they hoping to ride on. This is keeping with their tradition, actually. The ISO is a direct descendent in the Schactmanite tendency of the Trotskyists, who in the 1960s played a key role behind the scenes running white racist campaigns against Black community control of schools. Or that other neo-trotskyist cult, the Workers World Party, which has been a fervent supporter for genocidal Serbian neo-fascist leader Slobidan Milosevic and his former regime. The WWP would be too UFO-ish to even bother discussing, except that they were the main organizational backbone of the Free Mumia mobilizations on the East Coast in the 1990s and are a factor in the mainsteam white anti-war campaigns. So it’s like, come out for Mumia–and support genocide and neo-fascism!
What’s important to me isn’t whether this idea in the BRICK paper is right or wrong, but that they are being more open than most in saying what they see. For sure, there are a lot of new questions and possibilities now that all revolutionaries need to think out.
Above & Below also comes in with a hard second punch, explicitly denying any future belonging to the more developed hierarchical or centralized revolutionary movements that marxists have always pulled off: “Authoritarian communist and nationalists continue as guerilla groups in several Third World countries and as opposition parties in the West. Their goals, which once may have seemed radical, are now clearly about control by a party elite (usually middle-class intellectuals) of a ‘revolutionary’ state, that in turn controls all of society. While instituting certain reforms from above, their obsession with centralization, production, and total ideological control have devastating effects on the land, working people and any autonomous movements or impulses.”
Think there’s a mix of clarity and confusion here. We commies have an “obsession” about production for several reasons: the first is that for much of the 20th century, in countries like China tens of millions died from starvation and disease every year, while living in communities that physically resembled what in America would be vacant lots in the ghetto. We were “obsessed” with production because much of the human race desperately needed it. Communism was quickly subverted in China, for example, but in that one generation it helped billions to “stand up” and greatly improve their lives. This is something that’s hard to appreciate in the metropolis where many “revolutionary” people are more concerned with recycling yogurt containers and finding private schools for their children.
The other reason we’re focussed on production is because how a society (or a movement) deals practically with production defines its life. While i have a lot of criticism about the latent authoritarianism and racism of many anarchists like the folks in Eugene around John Z, the fact that some of them struggle to live a different life outside commodity “civilization” is something i respect. Yes, marxists used centralized organizational tools to make actual revolutions and win bloody anti colonial wars, helped millions of people radically change their lives for the better, and then were overthrown from within because of our own flaws and limitations. While from our standpoint anarchism sat it out on the sidelines, kept its virginity, and is very happy with that. Each to their own, i guess. There’s a gulf between any of that radical experience and newer statist armed movements in the Third World that may use the rhetoric of some old left but more closely resemble politicalized mafias ( or perhaps real robber baron capitalism).
While they tactfully don’t name any names (this generation of anarchists seem to be big on tact), they doubtlessly are thinking not only of Sendero Luminoso but of Al Fatah and the Kurdish Workers Party and so on. Many shocked anti-imperialists will consider this condemnation of Third World guerrillas by sheltered young euro amerikans to be racist–at best. While that reaction is understandable, the fact remains that an entire historic epoch of anti-colonialism has ended. The entire past generation of old anti-colonial movements has already passed away or seen their best day. They have accomplished what they could, have rightfully earned a place in history, and have completed their possibilities. Not that anti-colonialism is in any way over; it’s still on the main agenda of the human race. But those specific o.g. groups and movements were integral parts of an epoch that is definitely gone now. The useless remnants of that once-bright awakening have too often decayed and gone rotten. Just like the organizations and personalities of the night-of-the-living-dead “Civil Rights movement” or the I.R.A. And if young radical groups can’t spell out in a clear-eyed way that the old king has no clothes on, well, what fucking use are they? Anti-colonial resistance needs and is finding new forms and struggles.
This is strong stuff, but afterwards it seems to stay at a certain surface level. Not bad certainly, but not deep enough to outline what is critical and what’s not. There is a vagueness or a blurring about revolutionary organization and movement. For example, although Above and Below might give the impression of the struggle as simply pitting authoritarian groups or tendencies versus anti-authoritarian ones, it’s not that easy. They write: “There is nothing guaranteed about these struggles, many first launch themselves with a strong autonomous character, only to come under domination of an authoritarian group, or be co-opted back into the system. The Solidarity movement in Poland and the first Palestinian Intifadeh are examples.” But both these examples were popular movements that were both rebellious and conservative from the start. Both against the immediate system and yet for capitalist social organization. Both spontaneously democratic in activity and deeply patriarchal religious in ideology. That is, they carried within themselves the seeds of their own liberation and oppression mixed together.
Today it’s all mixed up, as we know, often with new anti-authoritarians struggling as parts of larger movements side by side with brothers with power trip politics. Or comrades working under the threat of death making tactical moves and strategic alliances–and being condemned for deviating from abstract middle-class principles as we’ve heard leftists in the u.s. condemn the Afghan women of RAWA.
Above and Below describes their anarchism most centrally as “new”:
We are a new grouping on a new world stage, most of what we try to do will necessarily be experimental. We must be bold as we advance while encouraging a thorough dialogue around all our activities…We need to develop our politics and vision. We need both a historical understanding of revolutionary anarchism, including the debates around “the Platform”, and a clear analysis of our current situation…
it’s hard to argue with such reasonable-sounding generalities, but does “new” really describe the politics (as opposed to the age of the group)?
For example, i was struck with one sentence that probably i’ve seen a thousand times in left documents and articles. It stuck out to me precisely because everything here is supposed to be so “new”, yet this is so dead: “The Bush government, in alliance with the Christian Right, is working to roll back the victories women have won…” This whole sentence is pure p.c. You could drop it right into the pages of the Nation or the ISO rag or the NLGTF press release and it’d be right at home. Only, none of it is true. (Most of what’s p.c. isn’t true, or was true once but not now–that’s why liberal capitalist society tries to make it obligatory on us to mouth the words).
Right now there’s hundreds of thousands of women in the u.s. empire’s armed forces and police. There are women commanders of all ranks and entire military units mostly made up of women. Just as white women are the CEOs at Xerox and Hewlett Packard. Did you recall any mass rebellions to open that door? How many white women took up the gun or went to prison in the 1960-70s to fight for their rights? Were there waves of civil disobedience and tieing up of city streets and the jails filled by mass arrests? Were white women burning down city blocks and sniping at police and firemen, as New Afrikans did throughout the 1960s? Was there a defiant, anti war and anti-government, million-person mass march and occupation of the streets by white women like the Chicano Moratorium in 1970s Los Angeles? Or were they coasting on the backs of others?
Truth: white “women’s equality” in the u.s. empire (as opposed to women’s liberation against all patriarchy) is a ruling class program initiated and ushered through by the government, to counterbalance concessions being made to Blacks, Latinos and other people of color. Ensuring that euro-amerikan settlers are the majority in the “minorities”, too. The first national women’s conference in the 1960s to plan for “equal rights” was held in Washington by the Kennedy Administration, not by any grassroots insurgents. It was out of that conference that N.O.W. and mainstream white feminism was formed. (Independent radical feminism was different and a bright but always very small star–hated and mocked and repressed). So white women here never won any rights actually, but were only permitted what may be temporary privileges. That was largely covered up (although many Black nationalist radicals pointed the truth out), in part by the large spontaneous response of women’s need and women’s anger after the ruling class threw open the door.
Secondly, the rightwing alliance that currently holds the Whitest House is not just the “Christian right” but is the Christian-Jewish right. The neo-cons who provide much of the GOP’s intellectual leadership for the invasion of Iraq and the new u.s. global empire are conspicuously Jewish. Everyone comments on this, from the National Alliance to the N.Y.Times, since for Jews to be not just a solitary Kissinger but an entire influential rightist policy bloc is new here. One reason this is censored out is that anarchists (and marxists) have a p.c. reluctance to use the word “Jew” unless some racist crime is the subject. Rightwing Jews are referred to as “Zionists” by the left, as though this was some fringe not representative of the Jewish community.
Without going into it in depth here, i think we should all stop pretending that the Jewish community now isn’t Zionist as a whole. And isn’t as racist as any other white community. Whether you’re discussing Jewish student groups or anti-racist youth groups or gay & lesbian groups or major community organizations or synagogues or prominent progressives like Paul Berman, the Jewish community now is a Zionist community committed to the genocide of the Palestinian people–no matter how much they all piously deny it.
For that matter, the financial support base (and many of the violent racist recruits) for the Israeli neo-fascist settlers movement comes right from the u.s. Jewish community. Their fucking slogan ought to be: “White Supremacy From Brooklyn to the West Bank!” Without any real opposition from other Jews that we can see. The star of david has been fully appropriated as the symbol of Zionist oppressors now. The period when that was an open question to be fought out is over. The star of david = the swastika, it’s just the facts. [Some who have read an earlier draft of this review have criticized the previous sentence on the grounds that it could be read to say that Jews as people equal Nazis, which is absurd & not my intention. Rather, i am saying that Israel as a nation equals Nazi Germany, and the two are not polar opposites but intimately related historically as nations. This entire parallel exchange on Zionism may appear in a future issue of “8”].
This isn’t just nuances or a marginally better defining of the right. It bears on how we understand what’s coming down. Above and Below says in discussing the unexpected turn that the main federal heat on non-Muslim “extremists” so far isn’t against the anarchists but against the fascists: “The fascists in the US have actually felt more repression from Ashcroft’s Feds than any section of the left outside of the Arab communities.” The f.b.i. has publicly said that rolling up neo-fascist racists is a priority, and there really has been a wave of arrests. Some of the arrested, like fuhrer Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator, have clearly been set up by the feds.
There has been a confused reaction to this, with some white radicals thinking that it’s only Ashcroft’s smokescreen to pave the way for later supposedly more “important” repression of anarchists, antiwar activists, etc. This naively self-important thinking is not only wrong but dangerous. This State crackdown on the upfront White Power fascists is real, because they (and not the left) are a short-term threat to the imperial strategy. Ashcroft and Bush want to forcibly keep white settler society welded together now. This is their power base, after all. And they know that a divisive anti-semitism and anti-Zionism from the right are ever-present within the body of white settlers like a common virus. Fascist anti-Jewish arguments would spread like a prairie fire if not constantly tamped down out of public discourse. The long-term problems and possibilities of this situation are evident.
Precisely because the left has not been willing to deal with Jews, the prevailing capitalist atmosphere of covert anti-semitism is slowly seeping into its politics (that is, the left is both protective of Jewish racist crimes and simultaneously anti-semitic–the ideal attitude according to u.s. imperialism). Recently, in the furious polemics about the Iraq invasion, a number of white marxists and anarchists have crossed the line and argued that Israel is exerting undue influence on u.s. imperial foreign policy (and many Black mock-nationalists are obediently mouthing the same lines, of course). Here we can see the convergence of dead left and far right, since this is precisely the propaganda line put forward by the white fascists here.
Make no mistake, the u.s. empire is maneuvering for Jews everywhere to be its scapegoats, to take the weight for Western exploitation of the Muslim world. And far from pushing the huge u.s. empire around (a laughable concept if you think about it), Israel is like a fully-owned settler military outpost of the u.s. empire over the Arab peoples. It’s an old act, the puppet pretending to dominate the puppet-master. See the recent controversy over the May 29th Chicago Tribune editorial cartoon showing George Bush groveling on his knees spreading dollars in front of a beak-nosed Ariel Sharon with the star of david on his suit. This is a cartoon so grossly anti-semitic that it wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1930s Nazi Party press–yet the temper of the times is such that it slipped by the major media editors as just normal “humor”.
This may not be the most important issue in the world, but it is one example of the need for revolutionaries to help people uncover what is really going down. And how liberal p.c. keeps everyone passive to the infection of capitalist manipulation.
And when Above and Below says that “We are a new grouping on a new world stage…” , is this unconsciously a way of dodging underlying, unresolved challenges? BRICK is young & new in one sense, as is this entire wave of anarchism. And has done fresh things, to its credit. But the phenomenon of spontaneous grass-roots anti authoritarianism is obviously not new. Every outbreak of mass rebellion produces such a “new” wave. Whether in Korea at the start of the 20th century, when the young revolutionary movement was primarily thousands of anarchists using Tolstoy as their guide–or in 1960s America. This comes up more clearly when they discuss their tendency in the world’s struggles:
So who is the Us? Who do we stand with on this planet? The Zapatistas’ uprising, the Battle in Seattle, and Argentina’s revolt. The anarchist and alternative unions in Europe, the land seizures in Brazil, and the heroism of RAWA. The anti-privatization movement in South Africa, the Belfast-based free-speech forum The Blanket, and the bonfires in Quebec City. People’s Global Action, the IndyMedia Centers, and the International Libertarian Solidarity network.
This sample of movements, organizations, actions, and projects may seem unwieldy, but it has a logic. As a ‘movement’, its main characteristics include: conscious anti-capitalism, a rejection of vanguardism and statecraft, a broad repertoire of militant direct action, a directly democratic process, an egalitarian vision, a commitment to autonomy, political and physical hostility to the fascists and fundamentalists, an ecological understanding, and deep reservations about the effects and effectiveness of an armed-struggle strategy- among others.
Anarchism is a significant minority within these movements, better known and with more momentum than any time in the last sixty years…Anarchists cannot be passive participants in these movements. We have a responsibility to argue for explicitly anarchist methods and goals.
Without arguing whether that collection of struggles and initiatives is actually one current (which i question), important issues are apparent. There is a worldwide regrowth of anti-authoritarian revolt by the oppressed directly taking the initiative into their hands, and moving in new directions. Picking up the thread laid down by the communist peasant armies and cadres in China seventy years ago. Anarchism, we are told, has “more momentum than any time in the last sixty years.” Not being an expert on anarchism i may be wrong here, but this seems unintentionally misleading.
The early 1960s were a time when anti-authoritarianism was everywhere. Rock & roll and the youth culture were hardly marxist or centralized. The early anti-Vietnam War movement had many young anarchists involved, while the whole nature of college student collectives then was at first heavily anti-authoritarian (insisting that leaderless decisions had to be made by consensus rather than by voting used to drive us marxists crazy). i remember political prisoner David Gilbert saying that he didn’t become a revolutionary because of Marx and socialism, but because of Dylan, rock & roll, and the Black student Sit-Ins in the South.
In the Midwest, one of the main anti-war figures in the late 1950s-early 1960s was a Native American anarchist. One of the people who taught civil disobedience to college students who had never been arrested before, he personally led the very first ever attempted Peoples’ takeover of the Whitest House (the secret service guards were surprised when this Indian anarchist led 400 youths to climbing over the Whitest House fence into JFK’s front yard!). Obviously, young anarchists played a role in the student draft resistance movement back then. And there was a whole faction in SNCC down South–the so-called “Freedom High” tendency–which included some spontaneous young Black anarchists. i remember one brother was an insider legend in the movement for his outraged statement: “I went to jail for my freedom, and now I’m supposed to obey some organization ?”
The point is that anarchism and certainly a broader anti-authoritarianism aren’t “new” here. Folks just think so because the previous wave of early 1960s anti-authoritarianism blew it so badly that they got totally wiped out politically. So maybe saying “new” doesn’t give this young anarchism a free pass? Maybe anarchists have to figure out a better plan than they’ve had in the past?
This brings up the question of organization, which Above & Below doesn’t deal with. What are “anarchist methods” we outsiders might ask, since this document doesn’t go into them except for saying that: “The anarchist role is not seizing leadership, but encouraging and defending the most far reaching self-organization against all authority “? Bluntly, i think comrades who believe this haven’t been there. Sometimes good leadership feels more precious than life itself. And leadership isn’t the same as authoritarianism. Leadership is a political role, like any other responsibility. It doesn’t mean that someone who does that task is the “smartest” or “best” any more than to work as security means that you are the “toughest” or to do communal child care means that you are more “nuturing”. That is all messed up capitalist stereotypes. As an asian comrade once said who had known little in his life but defeats and betrayals, “It is easy to lead men to death and defeat, but it is hard to lead them to victory and socialism.” i notice anarchist projects falling through bad leadership and in other cases surviving through dedicated leadership. My fear isn’t that anarchists won’t accept some soviet-style authoritarian party (that the farcical “paper maoists” here in the metropolis have vainly battled each other to own). It’s that their general inexperience about and lack of knowledge of organization will leave them unable to create new long-range strategies & struggles. Just like their “Marxist-Leninist” siblings here who play the endless day with their authoritarian little schemes in the big sandbox of America.
To marxism-leninism, revolutionary structures are not eternally fixed like the ten commandments but constantly evolve, with surprising leaps and new forms and strategies always appearing out of the actual needs and experiences of the oppressed. And from the oppressed. The bolshevik-type disciplined clandestine party was once a shocking new innovation taken from earlier anarchist revolutionaries (not from any marxist models, that’s for sure). As was the mass peasant roving guerrilla party of China, which grew out of the gritty experience of continuous desperate peasant uprisings and bandit subcultures. What anarchists and marxists alike usually don’t address is the possibility that the great left debates of the 20th century between marxists and anarchists are just that–left behind in the 20th century.
Above and Below is honest in recognizing that the new insurgencies it identifies with include a variety of political points of view. Two of the revolutionary initiatives named are far from classically anarchist in organization, and were in fact started by Maoists. Those are the Zapatistas in Chiapas and Afghanistan’s RAWA. These two innovative, long-range struggles have been applauded by revolutionaries around the world. Including marxists although neither group is obviously anything like a marxist-leninist party of old. It is normal for revs to create new types of organizations of the oppressed which don’t resemble either the marxist or anarchist past. In that sense, revolutionaries use history, we don’t let history use us.
Much more than marxist-leninists usually do, Above and Below emphasizes building culture from below (as opposed to a “better” state-sponsored or spectator culture):
Culture has played an increasingly important role in our movement. It gives life to the resistance. We also know that any culture becomes a target for capitalism to be sold back to us as a commercialized empty shell. Within hip-hop, punk, queer and other subcultures battles are being waged between a committed underground and corporate colonization….
Developing revolutionary culture is equally important. A number of comrades are artists, musicians, and DJ’s, and almost all of us have connections to the subcultures. We need to analyze what’s going on in popular and rebel culture, and figure out how to participate and impact cultural consciousness and movements. We need to make sure all of our activity has flava. We are not the rigid, boring left and we don’t want to look like it.
This is important. Organizations come and go and are reborn in different form. New experiments fail more often than take root. But the stubborn subculture of anticapitalism is the soil that they all come from. Building and maintaining that subculture in its many forms is key, and its leading that BRICK zeroes in on being a participant subculture of creative rebellion.
If what i’ve said here sounds negative, let me correct that. A lot of work went into this writing, to good result. Certainly, marxists could learn from Above and Below. This political statement is thoughtful & modestly impressive in many ways, though it feels odd to read an organizational statement that is careful not to say more than it knows. This leaves big gaps (smile). The biggest by far is the question that RAWA has raised by being the only revolutionary organization of either gender in Afghanistan during bitter years of reactionary terror and mass clerical fascist repression. In Bosnia and Cechnia and Rwanda and India and etc there was no revolutionary organization of men on the ground to fight off the capitalist genocide. Is this a trend? Is the anti-authoritarian future for our world a future that must be written primarily by the autonomous struggles of revolutionary women?