Anarchist movement conference discussion

Contributions to the anarchist movement conference discussion

Early June saw the first attempt in 10 years to hold an anarchist movement conference in the UK. Around 250/300 people attended over the 2 days in London, including a few from Bristol. At Bristol’s anarchist bookfair next Saturday, one workshop (room 1, 3 to 4pm) will feedback and discuss the event. How we move the anarchist movement on to being a more relevant, dynamic and successful movement is a key question for many anarchists, whilst others question whether we actually have a defined anarchist movement anyway, and if we do need one how could it be structured, and to what purpose? Much to think about! To get the discussion moving, we reproduce here 2 comments circulated on the anarchist conference organising email list. Names have been removed, but the comments are otherwise unedited. Contributor A has been active in the London anarchist movement for a good 10 years, and spent time in prison abroad after a confrontation outside a summit. Contributor B has been active in London for at least 20 years and has been involved in organising a number of national events, as well as local groups. (NB: see here for more on the anarcha-feminist intervention).

conference flyer - with controversial image?
conference flyer - with controversial image?

Contributor A:
What could and should have been the kickstart to the re-emergence of an genuine anarchist movement was instead a (very successful) bookfair-without-the-books event. We always knew this was going to be the case because people wanted to organise it in a particluar way which meant it couldn’t be anything other than that.

Unfortunately it was an anybody and everyone conference organised around people attending and participating as individuals which meant inevitably you’d get very individualised viewpoints. It could, and should, have been a conference for the anarchist movement – i.e. those actively involved in anarchist groups, or those actively involved in anarchist politics, instead we got a huge amount of people claiming not really to be anarchists, not actively involved in anarchist politics/groups or fearful of describing themselves as anarchists!

Only an anarchist conference could invite people who don’t subscribe to the notion of anarchism to build a movement they have no real stake in!

Of course it was an event-style conference which meant a few good and dedicated comrades set a date and invited people to attend. It was difficult in my group: one person said he didn’t want to build an anarchist movement (!), others were there because they were just curious, others were involved in activities that had no relation to anarchist groups, ideas or activities.

As a mass event it worked perfectly. But as a precursor to seriously addressing the issue of why we haven’t got an anarchist movement it almost answered itself.

I was in a ‘good’ group, as a method of ‘pub talk’ it was wonderfully refreshing to talk candidly about your politics, when it came to what we actually do with those politics there was an awkward, stony and embarrassing lack of energy or insight.

The conference was conceived in such a way that it allowed anyone and everyone who vaguely described their thoughts/ideas/hairstyle/living arrangements/ideological positions as anarchist to attend. And although there wasn’t the conflict and ruptures and schisms between those vying for the concentrated soul of the true anarchism definition (which may be considered a success in itself), neither was their any sense of a movement coming together.

Which goes back to what the conference was for. If it was for:
1. lots of numbers means we can call ourselves a movement
2. genuine anarchists living in isolated parts of the uk in critically small numbers to feel a real part of a bigger whole
…then it more than succeeded.

If on the other hand the anarchist conference was for anarchists groups and those active in anarchist politics (ie being an anarchist) to come together meet and find methods of working together, developing political strategies around the very real issues we are all facing, and actualise an anarchist movement, not based on numbers attended, but on how anarchists work together in the promotion of anarchist ideas in a real world environment then we still need to look at ourselves critically.

This conference should have been by and for anarchists; only then would we have recognised our strengths and weaknesses as a movement and been able to actually do something, collectively, about it. Perhaps that conference is yet to come?

What we have now is a mish-mash of hectoring individuals with strong opinions coming together to tell each other those opinions. If the ‘vibe watcher’ thinks this conference was for him, then it’s a pretty dismal anarchist movement we inherit. And to be perfectly frank not one i want to be a part of. I don’t want to be part of a movement that embraces every social misfit who thinks anarchism means doing what you want, without political awareness, without social responsibility, without actively contributing anything other than an opinion (“being mad” is not a requirement of political activity). I don’t want to be part of a movement where we talk and we talk and we talk (about our feelings, about our personal issues, about what makes us really unhappy) where anarchism revolves around the blessed ego and the passive arrogance of individuals and emotional parasites who have no-where else to go.

Anarchism is not personal lifestyle choice. Anarchism is not an all inclusive self-help group for those who don’t feel comfortable anywhere else, anarchism is not an environment where personal behaviour is somehow liberated from social consequences. It is a political tendency borne out of real social struggles that (should) resonate within society in general.

An anarchist movement should be clear: Those who actively contribute to the development and promotion of anarchist ideas and activities in the real world, and not simply a loose social network of those who are feeling a bit ‘anarchisty’ today.

Two further points:

1. Calling it an anarchist movement conference was a little deceitful. Wishful thinking certainly given the way it was organised. That said the questions posed at the conference were aimed at those in ‘the movement’. Given the conference was essentially 250 individuals chatting with each other, a lot of whom were self-confessed non-anarchists, it made it impossible to engage properly with what was being asked of us, develop any kind of narrative let alone turn it into something concrete.

2. No problems with the anarcho-feminist intervention. Fair play to them. Did what it intended – got people talking, and if an anarcho-feminist tendency develops from it all the better. Again the failure of the intervention was they directed their criticism at ‘the movement’. In reality they were engaging with 250 individuals in a room (hence the sometimes angry, odd, defensive and confused responses). The conference flyer wasn’t decided, designed or approved by ‘the movement’ therefore how can anyone other than the small group of people who organised the event held reponsible for it? Iff it was a genuine anarchist movement conference then they would have had a very valid point.

Contributor B:
I have seen similar comments to yours on Indymedia as well but didn’t have the inclination to reply. Now they are coming up on the organising group list, I feel I should. As one of the organisers who stuck with trying to make the event happen, I do take some of the points personally. So, I will try and answer some of your critisms.

You say the conference “could, and should, have been a conference for the anarchist movement”. What the hell do you think we were organising – a bloody picnic! Those of us who stayed with it, didn’t do it to keep ourselves busy – we wanted to try and pull together the anarchist movement in the UK (I can’t be bothered to pussy foot around with right on terms for the bit of land we live on any more) and make it a threat. The literature we put out stated what the conference was for. lines like ” We make no pretence. This is a conference by and for anarchists. And by anarchists, we mean those opposed to the state, all forms of nationalism, capitalism, sexual/race/gender oppression and all forms of exploitation and domination.” and “So, where does that leave the Anarchist Movement? Are we relevant? Do we exist in a form coherent enough to actually be called a movement? Are we progressing? The Anarchist Movement Conference is a chance to put our ideas on the table and rebuild ourselves”. How much plainer can we make it!

You also say “Only an anarchist conference could invite people who don’t subscribe to the notion of anarchism to build a movement they have no real stake in!” Cheap jibe don’t you think? Where have we invited people who don’t believe in anarchism to the conference, or do you just mean your specific definition of anarchism? So, if you hadn’t pulled out of the organising would you have had us vetting people to see if they call themselves anarchists? People had a go at us that we were too authoritarian. Are you saying we didn’t go far enough? Please tell me – should we have put on the booking form “are you a committed anarchist” and if they said no send their money back to them. And, then whose going to be the “anarchist cops” vetting that somebody is not lying, or that their view of “anarchism” is good/strong enough to allow them into the building?

You say we didn’t get the conference “you” wanted but got “a mish-mash of hectoring individuals with strong opinions coming together to tell each other those opinions”. Sorry, but I am not sure where you get your vision of this so called “anarchist movement” where we are all “as one”. We have a rag bag collection of individuals – some in groups, others not. Some active, some not. We have people who call themselves anarcho-syndicalists; others anarcho-communists; others individualists; others anarcho socialists; others green anarchists – you get my drift. The idea of the conference (AS A FIRST SMALL STEP) was to try and bring all these tendencies together and see where/if we can work together. Again I would ask – who decides who can attend and who can’t? I had a few chats with people before the conference who were telling me who “I” shouldn’t allow to come along! I agree anarchism shouldn’t mean we are liberal fluffies, but where on the “I am a better anarchist than you sign up sheet” does it say any of us have the right to exclude others who classify themselves as anarchos (except in possible very rare exceptional circumstances)? OK, we could have called it a “class struggle” anarchist conference, and then we would have only got one brand of anarchists coming along – although others would have turned up to see what was happening, or to argue out why this term is wrong. Again, do we question people before they come in and then ban them and refund their money if they can’t prove the are “class-struggle” enough? In all the emails about the conference allowing in too many liberals, I saw no suggestion how you stop/ban them. I look forward to the proscribed way.

I can’t speak for others here but I want to build an anarchist movement – -not just a specific section of the anarchist movement. I am not putting them down here (far from it), but isn’t the latter the job of the anarchist national organisations? To become a member of these groups you have to be a committed anarcho syndicalist or anarcho communist and agree with all the “aims, objectives, policies and position papers”. That’s not the anarchism for me – so should I have excluded myself from the conference? And again, not putting them down as it’s a failure of all of us who call ourselves anarchists, but to my knowledge none of the national organisations have more than about 150 members nationwide and most have been going for ages.

You say “I don’t want to be part of a movement that embraces every social misfit who thinks anarchism means doing what you want, without political awareness, without social responsibility, without actively contributing anything other than an opinion”. If we are going to build an anarchist society, or get anywhere near to it, we do need to engage with the “social misfits” you mention and we are going to have people in our groups and coming to our meetings who fit your comment above to a tee – most of us have already on a number of occasions. A lot of us also turn a “blind eye” to present comrades who could fit some or all of this quote, and yes we need to ask ourselves why we do this. But, I am guessing the comment was directed at some participants at the conference. All the organisers did was to try and get together people from around the country who (self describe) themselves as anarchists. Once in the discussion rooms it is for those of us who see things in a different way to argue/discuss our ways. If our/your comments in meetings were convincing enough, maybe we/you will change others opinions. If not, people will/would leave still being convinced their way is still the best. The pain in the arse about anarchism is none of us are that all powerful leader who tells others what they should do and think. We go and leave it up to people to make their own minds up, and some of them have the cheek to think bloody differently!

I will try and restate my position as one of the “main” organisers. We have an incredibly “active” movement of people around the UK who in one form or another self describe themselves as anarchists. Loads of good comrades are doing loads of stuff. From the national groups, to local groups and loose collections, to single issue campaigns, to comrades who prioritise specific aspects of our movement, to social centres, to distros, etc, etc – and many of us fall into more than one of these categories. Some of us see ourselves as red/black anarchos; some as green/black anarchos; some as black block anarchos; some don’t categorize themselves. Some argue violence as a major tactic, some argue pacifism as a major tactic, some accept both as tactics to use when the situation determines. Some accept the term “class struggle” others don’t. And 101 other combinations.

What we don’t have is an “anarchist movement”. We have no proper/decent structure or organisation (I don’t mean “organisations” here). Even trying to think about it is an incredibly daughting task. Many comrades don’t want such a structure and are happy doing their own thing (and I am not even mentioning the individualists amongst us) or don’t want to think/discuss the wider picture or how we get there. I want to see an anarchist movement that is a threat in this country. A movement of people that takes back what we want and moves us (in as small or large a way as possible) towards a society we dream of. A movement that can collectively also defend our gain, both locally, nationally and internationally. I accept some of this is happening in small ways all the time and as somebody in my group said “the revolution isn’t some big bang – it is something that happens in small ways every day, building to something enormous”. But, this will not happen over night. It will not happen just because we want it to. We have to do things to make this happen. We either ignore other comrades because their version of anarchism is wrong, or we somehow have to work together to try and turn our dreams into realities. I know there have been comments on this elist saying some of us don’t want to work with other comrades because it doesn’t get you anywhere – that’s their view – not mine. The conference, for me anyway, was one of the first small steps to building a unite movement from a rag bag assortment of us. No it didn’t shake the earth. No it didn’t suddenly make us all agree. No, we haven’t now got a united movement. Yes, there were a lot of views others didn’t agree with or understand. But, 6 working groups set up to look at specific issues that came out of the conference. The discussion about Patriarchy has been raised again (for some of us the issue never went away). I think anybody who expected much more was being too optimistic, or trying to push things too fast – but maybe I am getting too cynical and pessimistic?

But, we got 200/300 people together (most of who in their own ways) wanted to at least investigate the idea of seeing if we can move things on. A small section of our “movement” came together to discuss where we are and where we might go. And yes, it showed the “movement” in all it’s colours – good and bad and showed us just what we have as a so-called movement. At times looking at what we have it’s ugly. But, that’s what we have – and we all take credit or blame for that. The conference was a part of this process – not the process itself. It should not been seen as the only tactic or the main tactic – just one tactic. I for one hope we have the conference again next year, to move the small advance we hopefully made onwards. Yes, if it happens again it should have more people involved in deciding the venue, format, content. Yes, it would be good to have different questions. but, this year we could only work with what we had, and i for one am not going to shy away from working with what you have – even if what we have ain’t very much. Yes, there were failings – but there are in everything we do – none of us are perfect and i for one hope i never am. All I would say is “we have to start somewhere”. For all those that criticise what others tried to do, please tell me the blueprint that will work and why you/we haven’t done it already.