The Dutch Provos: Burlesque Neo-Liberals or Anarchist Utopians?

[Published on December 14, 2007]

In the mid-1960s, a loose band of artists, hippies, and anarchists burst onto the political stage in the Netherlands. Known as the Provos (as in to provoke), they led a mini-rebellion against the established order that rattled elites and left behind an inspired legacy of anti-authoritarian activism.

Richard Kempton documents this legacy in his recently released, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt, the first book-length history of the group in English. He traces the emergence, highpoints, and decline of the Provos, in addition to providing tangential but interesting appendices on topics such as the relationship between the Provos and the Situationists, the history of anarchism in Amsterdam, and others. He does a good job at placing the group in the context of the radical currents from which it emerged and at relating the Provos’ trajectory to some of the political peculiarities of the Netherlands. While a deeper examination of the group’s ideas and internal organization would have enriched the book, I found it to be thoughtful, informative, and fun to read. (For a quick introduction to the Provos, you may wish to check out this article as well as this one.)

Kempton illustrates the Provos’ extraordinary ability to expose the contradictions of the liberal democratic society in which they lived while making authorities look absurd in the process. Of their many feats that he records, their “White Bicycle Plan” is surely the most famous. It began as a response to the traffic jams and air pollution plaguing Amsterdam: instead of passively accepting the automobile’s toxic domination of urban life, the Provos pressed the municipal government to give out vast numbers of unlockable, white bikes throughout the city. These cycles–easily identifiable due to their color–would be available to any passerby who felt like riding one. He or she could take it to his or her destination but, once there, would be obliged to leave it for other citizens. This ingenious plan was clearly a sensible, low-cost, and environmentally friendly way to meet at least some of Amsterdam’s transportation needs.

The Provos distributed fifty bikes at their own expense to jump start the program but immediately ran into problems with the police, who objected to their attempt to socialize the means of transportation. In fact, the cops impounded the bikes furnished by the Provos on the pretext that doling out unlocked bicycles “encouraged theft.” In other words, they took bicycles to prevent them from being taken!

The Provos were naturally delighted to find the police offering Amsterdamers such a concrete lesson in the bankruptcy of the criminal justice system: thanks to their unintentional complicity in the Provos’ scheme, the city became a classroom in which attentive residents could learn a lesson normally buried in obscure anarchist pamphlets and disquisitions: the cops’ primary objective is not to serve the people but rather to protect the status quo, no matter how noxious and irrational it might be.

The “White Bicycle Plan” was one among multiple Provo “plans,” all designed to push people toward cooperative, ecological solutions while undermining the legitimacy of the established order. They outlined many of these in a brochure entitled What the Provos Want , which they released in 1966, shortly before successfully competing for a seat on Amsterdam’s City Council (“Vote Provo for a Laugh!” was one of their campaign slogans). Kempton summarizes key points:

* The White Bicycle Plan: In an effort to address traffic congestion in the center of the city, white bicycles would become the common property of all the people of Amsterdam. Automobiles would be excluded from the center of the city.

* The White Chimney Plan: A mandate that chimneys have special built-in incinerators to combat air pollution; with fines for infractions.

* The White Chicken Plan: Amsterdam’s police force should be recast as unarmed friendly social workers with candy and band-aids in their pockets.

* The White Dwelling Plan: In an effort to ease the city’s housing shortage the city government would publish a weekly list of empty buildings so people without homes could squat them.

* The White Wives Plan: Developed by Irene Donner-Van der Wetering, this plan called for sex education for young people. Among other things it mandated information on contraception, medical clinics for young girls, and teaching family planning.

* The White Schools Plan: Students would have a say in expanding opportunities for democratically organized study and discussion.

* The White City Plan: Amsterdam would become the first urban area committed to implementing Constant Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon.(1)

After reading these “plans,” I found myself surprised to realize that today, approximately forty years later, many of their demands (“plans”) have become non-controversial elements of mainstream social policy. For example, numerous cities have experimented with free bicycle programs (such as Portland, Madison, and Barcelona), and bike paths and restrictions on vehicular traffic are common in American cities. Likewise, controls on air pollution are pervasive; young people often receive some degree of sex education; and students frequently play a role in setting academic policy at the college and sometimes high school level. Obviously, aspects of their program remain unrealized–I know of no city that publishes lists of squatable buildings, for instance–but, nonetheless, much of the Provo platform has lost its controversial, provocative quality.

This raises a difficult question about the meaning of the Provos’ legacy. What if the Provos (and corresponding groups like the Yippies in the United States) ultimately need to be understood less as anarchist instigators than as the avant-garde of a more lenient, culturally flexible, and ecologically friendly capitalism? While it’s true that they set stodgy authorities into a frenzy four decades ago, it may be that those authorities were simply anachronistic obstacles and that the Provos actually helped modernize capitalism by undermining their legitimacy.

Issues such as these are beyond the scope of Kempton’s book and, for that matter, most works on the history of anarchism. However, I believe that they are worth pursuing and I hope that the publication of this long overdue book on the Provos indicates that a more serious, complicated engagement with our past is on the horizon.

1. Richard Kempton, Provo: Amsterdam’s Anarchist Revolt (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2007), 81.

Radical Cities and Social Revolution: An Interview with Janet Biehl

[From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory  * * *  Vol. 2 – No. 1 Spring, 1998]

The abstractness and programmatic emptiness so characteristic of contemporary radical theory indicates a severe crisis in the left. It suggests a retreat from the belief that the ideal of a cooperative, egalitarian society can be made concrete and thus realized in actual social relationships. It is as though – in a period of change and demobilization – many radicals have ceded the right and the capacity to transform society to CEO’s and heads of state.

Janet Biehl’s new book, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism, is an affront to this. It challenges the politically resigned with a detailed, historically situated anti-statist and anti-capitalist politics for today.

I asked Biehl about her new work in the fall of 1997 by email.
~ Chuck Morse

* * *

Your book is essentially programmatic: you set libertarian municipalism in a historical context and offer concrete suggestions for practice. What political circumstances made it seem especially important to produce this book now?

As the political dimension of social ecology – the body of ideas developed by Murray Bookchin since the 1950s – libertarian municipalism is a libertarian politics of political and social revolution. It constitutes both a theory and a practice for building a revolutionary movement whose ultimate aim is to achieve an equal, just, and free society. My book is intended as a simple articulation of these ideas, which Bookchin himself has expounded elsewhere.

Briefly, for readers who do not know, libertarian municipalism calls for the creation of self-managed community political life at the municipal level: the level of the village, town, neighborhood, or small city. This political life would be embodied in institutions of direct democracy: citizens’ assemblies, popular assemblies, or town meetings. Where such institutions already exist, their democratic potential and structural power could be enlarged; where they formerly existed, they could be revived; and where they never existed, they could be created anew. But within these institutions people as citizens could manage the affairs of their own communities themselves – rather than relying on statist elites – arriving at policy decisions through the processes of direct democracy.

To address problems that transcend the boundaries of a single municipality, the democratized municipalities in a given region would form a confederation, sending delegates to a confederal council. This confederation would not be a state, since it would be controlled entirely by the citizens’ assemblies. The delegates that the assemblies send would have the power only to advance decisions made by their assemblies; they would be mandated and easily recallable.

As the libertarian municipalist movement grew and as ever more municipalities became democratized and confederated in this way, the confederations would hopefully become powerful enough to constitute themselves into dual power, one that could finally be pitted in opposition to the nation-state. At that point either a confrontation would ensue, or the citizenry would defect to the new system that gave them full control over their lives, “hollowing out” the power of the nation-state. At the same time the municipalities would take control of economic life from private corporations, expropriating the expropriators. A rational, libertarian, ecological society could then be formed, where structural power would reside in directly democratic assemblies inhabited by an active, vital citizenry.

My book lays out concrete steps by which a movement could be formed to create such a direct democracy. It emphasizes the crucial role of an educated group of committed individuals who, through study groups and local municipal electoral campaigns, build a movement by spreading these ideas in their communities.

The book has been needed for a long time, and I only regret that we didn’t have it back when we were working in the Left Green Network.(1) Just how much it’s been needed is indicated by the fact that within only a few weeks of its publication, comrades in other parts of the world made arrangements to translate it into five European languages, and discussions are under way for several others.

You place libertarian municipalism in the anarchist tradition and embrace its anti-statist and anti-capitalist goals. However, your emphasis on the conflict between the municipality and the state (as opposed to the conflict between labor and capital) is a departure from several dominant tendencies in the anarchist tradition. Why is this departure important?

First let me clarify that Bookchin does not oppose libertarian municipalism to the conflict between labor and capital. His intention is, rather, to broaden class struggle by connecting it to the municipality-state conflict; to introduce transclass issues – especially hierarchical domination and ecological dislocations – into formulations of class struggle; and to give class struggle a direct democratic base, grounded in a self-managed civic political culture. Libertarian municipalism is an effort to make class conflict a civic issue as well as an industrial one. It’s actually not so unusual: after all, revolutionary class struggles have historically been based in municipalities. The uprisings in Paris in 1848 and in 1870-71 were fought around barricades that were located in neighborhoods. Both in Red Petrograd in 1917 and in Barcelona in 1936-37, strong neighborhood civic cultures were crucial arenas for their respective revolutions.

Within the anarchist tradition, the municipality-state conflict goes back at least to Proudhon’s 1863 book on federalism, which called for a federation of autonomous communes. Bakunin absorbed this call and made it a central part of the programs he wrote in the late 1860s. In those same years, communalist ideas were becoming widespread among opponents of Napoleon III’s centralized rule in France. So in 1871, when Prussia defeated France and the French government collapsed, communalist ideas were already in place to infuse the Paris Commune when it sprang up on the ruins of the Second Empire. After only a few weeks’ existence, the Commune met with a disastrous end, yet many radicals – not only anti-statists but also Marx for a while – were inspired by the Commune’s audacious example and regarded the federation of autonomous communes as the model political structure for a free, self-managed society. In the later 1870s the idea passed into the programs of the Jura Federation, which regarded the communal federation as integral to the post-revolutionary society.

Libertarian municipalism draws on historical communalism, both in its anarchist and Marxist theoretical forms, as well as its concrete tradition in revolutionary history, going back to the French Revolution of 1789. At the same time it takes historical communalism further. Where early communalism saw the communes as mainly administrative in function, merely providing “public services,” and gave actual decision-making power over to workers’ associations (whose federation would parallel that of the federated communes), libertarian municipalism envisions the commune as a direct democracy that controls the economy. And where anarchist communalists thought people would form communes spontaneously after the state collapsed by other means, libertarian municipalism provides for a revolutionary transition, in which the federation of communes would become a dual power against the nation-state.

My point is that the communalist tradition, of which libertarian municipalism is a development, isn’t by any means alien to the anarchist tradition – in fact, it was present at the creation.

One way anarchists have distinguished themselves from others in the socialist tradition is by emphasizing the importance of counter-cultures as well as counter-institutions for a general revolutionary strategy. What is the relationship, in your view, between these efforts and the struggle for the radical, directly democratic political institutions described in your book?

It’s been much to the detriment of anarchism and the left generally that so much attention has recently been given to cultural change at the expense of institutional change, to the point that today it overshadows politics altogether. I don’t mean to suggest that cultural work is bereft of political meaning, but it can’t stand on its own – it must be part of a larger political movement. Art and culture and self-expression by themselves pose no threat to the existing social order, because by themselves they can very easily be coopted and marketed. In fact, the alienation and dissent that a radical work of art expresses can sometimes make it all the more marketable, as something with a “dangerously” hip frisson.

Without a political movement that opposes commodification as such – and hence capitalism – as well as hierarchical domination, art too easily becomes just another commodity. The 1960s counter-culture has famously deteriorated into nostalgia merchandising and New Age spirituality, with all their many marketing possibilities, and hip advertising has coopted much of its sensibility (see the recent anthology Commodify Your Dissent). For example, the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ is now used to sell sneakers and my local bike shop sells Anarchy brand sunglasses. Within anarchism the emphasis on culture and self-expression and lifestyle – at the expense of a revolutionary politics (in the sense of community self-management) – has become so acute that social ecologists have had to distinguish themselves from it, to try to retain for anarchism a core socialist imperative to transform society at the level of social and political institutions as well as sensibility.

You argue that to create a free society we must democratize and expand the political realm. What role does the struggle against hierarchies often relegated to the private sphere – such as patriarchy and white supremacy – play in this effort?

During the course of a political and social revolution, people’s personalities will doubtless be changed, especially as they experience the solidarity of common struggle, fight on behalf of a common ideal rather than their own particular interests, and socially empower themselves. During such experiences we could expect that racism and sexism would be reduced. But insofar as they persist, either in mindsets or in social arrangements, the community members – in the political realm, in the democratic citizens’ assemblies – would make decisions about how to address them in whatever ways they deem appropriate.

The danger exists that a community could set policies that are racist and sexist, but it would be irrational for a society predicated on the fulfillment of the potentialities of all its members to suppress the potentialities of some. One of the fundamentals of social ecology, of which libertarian municipalism is the political dimension, is a condemnation of all kinds of social hierarchy and class rule and a call for their dissolution.

The idea of potentiality appears throughout your book. You refer to the “political potential of the municipality,” our “uniquely human potentiality” for a rational society, etc. Please tell me more about this concept of potentiality?

This question touches on the philosophical dimension of social ecology, dialectical naturalism, a topic too complex to explore thoroughly here; I’d refer interested readers to Bookchin’s Philosophy of Social Ecology (2nd ed. revised). I’ll merely say, in brief, that as a developmental philosophy (as opposed to an analytical philosophy), dialectical naturalism focuses on processes unfolding in both natural evolution and social history, especially those that tend, however obliquely and tortuously and even abortively at times, toward greater freedom, self-consciousness, and reflexivity.

As a developmental philosophy, dialectical naturalism uses a vocabulary that reflects develop-mental processes: potentiality, emergence, unfolding, growth, actualization, fulfillment. Where analytical philosophy presupposes fixity, dialectical philosophy presupposes movement, and not merely kinesis but directional movement.

By focusing on the potentialities of a situation, dialectical rationality encourages us to examine what kind of future could logically emerge from that situation. Thus, the municipality as it exists today contains the potentiality to become democratized and part of a rational society; the achievement of a libertarian municipalist society would mark the fulfillment or actualization of that potentiality.

You call upon people to overthrow capitalism and the state, and to create a free society informed by reason, solidarity, and an ethos of citizenship. However, your discussion of the colonization of social life by capitalism, the assault on communities, and the dissolution of the political realm seems to describe the destruction of the sources from which we could derive the capacity to build a social alternative. From where, under these conditions, can we find the strength and insight needed to create a free society?

Today’s society of instant gratification perpetually gives us the message that our aim in life is to maximize our personal happiness, within the framework of capitalism. It gives little or no cultural support to subordinating immediate personal needs to the pursuit of a larger goal. It shrivels our imagination from expansively envisioning a better world to submersing itself in matters of practical survival and the consumption of goods and services. It systematically strips us of what earlier centuries would have called our better nature.

Not only does this social order commodify and exploit us, it obscures our historical memory and thereby stupefies us. It would like us to forget that for centuries people participated in efforts for social transformation that did not bear fruit in their lifetimes. Not only did they not need immediate gratification, they did not expect it and were willing to risk exile and punishment, knowing it served the creation of a better society.

We therefore have to recognize that the immediate gratification of desire is part of the system we are fighting. We have to hold on to our historical memory and resist social amnesia. We must be willing, on some level, to put the cause of creating a better society before the cause of putting an espresso machine on the kitchen countertop.

If we don’t find the strength to persist and maintain our ideals, then our lives will be meaningless too, and we will become trivialized. We will, as William James once put it, “relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which [we] had been momentarily aroused.”

So we have to look for other people who, like us, want to uphold human dignity, and who understand that the worst problem our society faces is not El Nino or incompetent nannies but the social order itself. We fight that social order because a diminution of our humanity and our best aspirations would be insufferable.

Marx essentially argued that communism would emerge from the maturation of capitalism’s internal contradictions. Do you regard the creation of a libertarian municipalist society as an act of will or a culmination of a larger historical process?

It’s both. I have no doubt that our society is heading toward a crisis – the only question is whether its immediate cause will be social or ecological. As Marx pointed out in Capital, capitalist enterprises must either maximize their profits and therefore expand, or else succumb to their rivals and perish – grow or die. Bookchin has added that this imperative puts capitalism on a collision course with the natural world. Even as global warming is poised to wreak enormous havoc in the next century, the discrepancy between rich and poor is widening. To maximize its profits on a global basis, capitalism is rendering whole categories of people useless – by some estimates, about three-fifths of the world’s population.

I also think we might take another look at Marx’s “immiseration” thesis. He argued that the logic of capitalism was to reduce wages to the lowest possible level; when people were pauperized, he thought, they would be impelled to revolt against the bourgeoisie exploiting them. This prediction was not fulfilled, in part because welfare states were created that softened the impact of capitalism somewhat. Now that many of the social welfare benefits upon which the social peace has come to depend are being whittled away, the prediction that immiseration will lead to social revolution may yet turn out to be correct.

Whatever the cause of the crisis, when it does develop, its social outcome will by no means necessarily be a rational, ecological, and libertarian society. Its outcome could be a dictatorship, or chaos. If the crisis is to result in emancipation, at least some degree of consciousness of the liberatory alternative will have to be in place beforehand.

This is where voluntarism comes in. Pre-revolutionary periods are usually quite short. We are unlikely to have a lot of time to do the painstaking, molecular work of education that a liberatory movement will require. That’s the kind of work we should be doing now: especially building a libertarian municipalist movement, showing people how they can take their political and economic lives into their own hands, showing them how they can build a society that will allow them to reclaim their humanity. It requires endless patience, but it must be done. If it is not, then the crisis that comes will result in tyranny.

It’s hard to find a radical theorist these days not ensconced in the university. You are an exception and have deliberately remained outside of academia. Why is this?

The other night I came across a passage in Bakunin, where he talks about “the history of all academes.” “From the moment he becomes an academician,” Bakunin wrote, ” . . . the greatest scientific genius inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the genius, ever called to destroy tottering old worlds and lay the foundations of the new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he lacks in power of originality. In a word, he becomes corrupted.”(2) I think this passage is too harsh; many academics from all parts of the political spectrum do try to participate in public political culture, writing books and op-ed pieces and articles for a popular readership. And the research that radical historians in the academy do on revolutionary movements and socialist-anarchist ideas is certainly invaluable to those who are trying to build on those traditions.

But it’s hard for professors to write works that directly advance revolutionary movements, works that will educate and inspire revolutionary activists and intellectuals. In a university, most of the writing one does must help consolidate one’s career, especially by demonstrating scholarship. Writing a movement-building work could jeopardize that career. So academics tend to address each other, more than the general public, and certainly much more than the revolutionary public. In this country, the mass exodus of leftists from public life into the academy has undoubtedly vitiated radical political culture.

Tell me about the future of your work. Do you have new projects planned or new issues you intend to explore?

I’m happy to say that The Murray Bookchin Reader, which I edited, is now available in the U.S. Currently I’m helping Bookchin put together a collection of recent interviews and essays, to be called Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left (published by A.K. Press next year).

Some of your readers may be interested to know that an international conference on libertarian municipalism will be held in Portugal in August 1998. Its purpose will be to discuss and advance the ideas of libertarian municipalism, as defined by this book and by Bookchin’s own writing. Those interested in advancing libertarian municipalism may contact the conference organizers at P.O. Box 111, Burlington, VT 05401 USA or or

* * *


1. Biehl and Chuck Morse were co-coordinators of the Left Green Network Clearinghouse from 1990 to 1991.
2. Sam Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchy (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1972), p. 228.

Dimensions of Chinese Anarchism: An Interview with Arif Dirlik

[From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory – Vol. 1 – No. 2, Fall 1997]


From 1905 to 1930, anarchists exerted a broad influence on Chinese culture and politics. They were at the center of the emerging social radicalism of that period and their activities left a significant mark on later decade’s revolutionary movements.
Arif Dirlik is among the few historians writing in English to treat the Chinese anarchist movement, which he has chronicled and analyzed in several works, most notably his Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. He has also written numerous explorations of contemporary problems in radical politics and theory.

I spoke with Dirlik on May 19, 1997. I asked him about Chinese anarchism, his experience as a radical social theorist in the university, and the future of his work. ~ Chuck Morse

See Also: Arif Dirlik: A Short Biography and Selected Works

Most histories of anarchism begin by establishing the principles of anarchism and then narrate the lives of those who embraced these principles. You chose a different approach in Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. You describe the Chinese anarchists as both subjects and objects – products and shapers – of the larger revolutionary process in China, and your book traces the dialectic between the anarchists and this process. Why did you choose this form of exposition? Is there something about the Chinese anarchists that makes this necessary or does it reflect larger methodological commitments?

It’s the latter. I believe in approaching concepts, theories, or political orientations historically. While some kind of notion of what one means by these concepts is necessary for analysis, establishing first principles tends to dehistoricize the approach to them. In other words, you establish first principles – as if they were true everywhere at all times – and then begin to analyze people in terms of those principles. This leads to ahistorical judgments, in my opinion, on “who is or isn’t a true anarchist” or “who is or isn’t a true Marxist?”

It leads inevitably to unproductive questions of orthodoxy — unproductive both intellectually and politically. This also results in certain kinds of sectarianism, since it leads to a question of truthfulness rather than historical variation. So, this didn’t have anything to do with Chinese anarchism per se, but rather my approach to intellectual history and concepts.

Unlike Peter Zarrow in Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture, you de-emphasize the role of Daoism and Buddhism in the constitution of Chinese anarchism. Why is this?

There is a methodological problem here … There has been a long-standing tendency – I’m tempted to call it an Orientalist tendency even – to attribute everything new in China to Chinese tradition, which is another way of saying that there is never anything significantly new in China, anything that cannot be explained in terms of the past.

I have been a critic of this tradition in Chinese historiography. I believe that Chinese society was as subject to change as any other society, whether or not we are willing to recognize it. So, I was hesitant, therefore, to attribute the emergence of anarchism, Marxism, or anything for that matter, to some Chinese tradition or another.

The problem is that the Chinese tradition has been used to explain everything, from communism and Maoism to anarchism, and these days it’s fashionable to explain Chinese capitalism in terms of tradition. I don’t know how valid that is as an explanation, that notion of tradition, when it can explain so many different and contradictory things.

I came to study Chinese anarchism by tracing the origins of this notion of social revolution, and I believe that Chinese anarchism was a radical, new idea.There may be Taoist elements in it, there may be Buddhist elements in it, there may even – through Tolstoy – be Christian elements in it: nevertheless, my concern was with the new ideas that anarchism brought into the Chinese intellectual scene, chief among them this idea of a social revolution. So, I think this emphasis explains some of the differences.

Also, we need to make a distinction between the past as a determinant of the present and the past as a reservoir of ideas upon which people can draw to deal with the present. There is no question that some of the Chinese anarchists – Liu Shipei was the outstanding one among them, and then Shifu – drew on Taoism and Buddhism. However, this is not just the determination or constitution of Chinese anarchism by Daoism or Buddhism, but rather a two way, dialectical process. In other words, the Chinese past is being read in new ways with the help of anarchism and conversely there is a rereading of anarchism through Taoist and Buddhist ideas. What is important to me is the dialectic, and I stay away from the notion that the Chinese were somehow unconsciously under the sway of this or that tradition that then shaped their readings of anarchism.

You claim that the emergence of Chinese nationalism actually created many of the theoretical and political preconditions for the emergence of Chinese anarchism. This seems contradictory at first glance. How did this happen?

This reflects a particular appreciation of nationalism on my part. While we obviously are concerned with many of the negative manifestations of nationalism, it is a rather radical idea at its origins. It calls for both a new conception of state, a new conception of the relationship between state and society, and a new conception of the political subject as citizen. In that sense, it breaks radically with earlier forms of political consciousness that rested legitimacy in the emperor and rendered the subjects into passive political subjects, whereas nationalism called for active political subjects. Aside from the question of the citizen, nationalism’s notion of the relationship between state and society requires a new kind of accounting for society, both in the sense of who’s going to participate in politics, what are the qualifications for participation in politics, and what are the factors that militate against political participation. As I argue in my book, in some ways these changes lead directly to questions of social revolution.

In the case of China, there is another element. There’s at least some kind of historical coincidence between the emergence of a nationalist consciousness and a new kind of supra-national utopianism, if you like. It’s as if the building of a nation becomes the first task but somehow not the ultimate task; that once the nation has been built and society has been reordered, there would, in the future, be a way of transcending that nationalism.

It’s tricky … I believe I described this as a counterpoint to nationalism. If you recall the parts in the book about Liu Shipei – and here the differences between anarchists become really important – there’s a feeling that nationalism opens up new questions that prepare the ground for anarchism, if you like, but also created new kinds of threats. For example, someone like Liu Shipei, could see correctly that for all the theoretical despotism of the Imperial State, nationalism promised far greater and far more intensive intrusion in society than had been the case under the imperial state. At this point, anarchism becomes a way of asserting the autonomy of the society against an intrusive nationalist society.

And, while I don’t want to generalize too much, this may be a fruitful way of thinking about other circumstances. This notion of nationalism – representing a new kind of politics, raising new questions, calling for new solutions, and playing some part in the emergence of socialism and anarchism – may be relevant to more than China.

Was there something unique about circumstances in China at this time that made Kropotkin – as opposed to other anarchist theorists – most pertinent or influential?

There are probably two reasons. First, Kropotkin’s anarchism is thoroughly tied to a program of social transformation and, given the concern among Chinese radicals with the question of social revolution, one can see why they would find Kropotkin more relevant than some of the other anarchists. Another interesting element is the importance of Social Darwinism in Chinese intellectual circles around the turn of the century. Chinese Social Darwinists almost adopted the Euro-American idea that the so-called progressive societies are progressive because they had won in the conflict for survival, and through this there was an element of the new world as a world of competition and conflict, where those who didn’t succeed might in fact perish. They were very preoccupied with the examples of the American-Indians and Africans, and some Chinese were convinced that those two groups, the black and red races as they called them, were doomed to extinction.

So, this called for a strengthening of China to struggle in this new world, but the counter-part to this was a dissatisfaction with this world view based on conflict. And, the discovery of Kropotkin under these circumstances – with his argument that it was not conflict and competition but rather mutual aid that served human progress – served as a significant antidote to this and also resonated with the utopian strain to which I referred earlier.

Kropotkin and Reclus were very important to Chinese anarchists and also quite Eurocentric thinkers, at least in their conception of world history. Did the Chinese anarchists take issue with this or attempt to develop alternatives?

I don’t think so. It was really not of much concern to the Paris anarchists. And the form in which Kropotkin and Reclus reached the Tokyo people did not really suggest a Eurocentric interpretation of Asia or China.

Although we are presently very sensitive to questions of Eurocentricism, the Chinese anarchists in Paris were much more down on Chinese traditions than anybody in Europe at the time. These are people who were calling for a revolution against Confucius. So, if they learned any of this in Europe, they were much more enthusiastic about the repudiation of the Chinese past for its backwardness than Europeans themselves.

In the case of Liu Shipei, who had very high opinions of Chinese past, I think it was somewhat different. There the influence of Tolstoy may have been quite important. Liu Shipei’s objection was not so much to Europe as to a new idea of politics and the idea of economic developmentalism that came with Europeans. 

The anarchists took a strong stand against the anti-Manchu racism implicit in the Revolutionary Alliance’s arguments against the Manchu government. Was there an attempt to develop an anarchist theory of ethnicity?

I’m not aware of any such attempt. I think they took a stand against anti-Manchu racism because they thought it was a distraction from the whole issue of politics. In other words, it was not the Manchus that were the problem, but the centralized political state system and, to the extent that racism was raised as an issue, it distracted from this more fundamental problem of the state.

Feminism and anarchism have had a difficult and complicated relationship in Europe and America, yet feminism was apparently integral to Chinese anarchism and not even a contentious issue within the anarchist movement. Is there a reason why feminism was so easily integrated into the anarchist movement in China?

I’m going to make a distinction between a concern for women and feminism in answering this question. The description of the Chinese anarchists, including people like He Zhen, as feminists may be somewhat misleading: it fits in with current fashions, but I think the concern was more with the oppression of women and what could be done about it than with a specifically feminist agenda.

The anarchist involvement in the question of women, when we rephrase the problem in that manner, followed almost automatically from their concern with the family as an oppressive institution. They were concerned with that throughout, and I think this brought them to the question of women, which was also a diffuse concern in Chinese society around 1920.

You write that you wanted to facilitate the emergence or re-emergence of a more democratic socialism by recalling and examining the history of Chinese anarchism. Did you also intend to assist in the revitalization or reemergence of anarchism?

When I began working on Chinese anarchism I sensed that there was a renewal of interest in anarchism, in a very broad sense, and I hoped to write this book as a contribution to that. And, by the 1980’s the failure of the promise of the Chinese revolution was becoming more and more evident, and I found that anarchism provided an interesting critical perspective on what had gone wrong. Also, to the extent that anarchism is laden with such valuable insights, obviously it is important to revive it and bring it to the forefront of discussions.

You are a unambiguously radical scholar of Chinese revolutionary movements and a full professor at a capitalist university in America, the center of world imperialism. How could you be employed in such a setting? Have you been pressured to de-radicalize or depoliticize your work? If not, what does this reveal about the relationship between the university and radical social criticism?

Contradictions (laughs) … No, I’ve never been pressured to deradicalize or depoliticize my work. If there’s pressure it’s indirect; you know, sometimes people say “what do you do?” and I’d say “I’m writing a book on Chinese anarchism” and all they can say is “oh”. There’s a sense that you are doing something marginal and playing games. That kind of pressure doesn’t bother me.

I think I’ve been lucky. You know, I’ve had friends who have suffered for being radicals. There have been hints of slight discrimination with regard to salaries and things like that, but I do not know whether to attribute that to the fact that I am a radical scholar or because I’m of third world origin. There may be a number of explanations here. 

We forget sometimes that elite uni-versities really need their radicals. Elite universities, committed to giving their students the broadest education possible and making them function in the world, cannot afford to produce narrow ignoramuses who have never heard of Marxism or anarchism. This may be why there’s probably more tolerance for radicals in the elite universities than in smaller places. That’s what I had in mind when I jokingly said “contradictions.”

In some ways, this is the strength of the American education system, in comparison, let’s say, to the Chinese education system where if something was politically un-desirable it was kept out, with the consequence that you end up with a bunch of people who didn’t know anything about the world other than what they’ve been fed by way of ideology. We are much more subtle with our controls and, under current circumstances, so long as you are not an activist, there are not serious reprisals.

We have a very intelligent power structure here. For example, about ten years ago somebody came to see me from the CIA. They were looking for students to recruit and were particularly interested in my students, because they figured they would know about Marxism, anarchism, etc., and if you want intelligent analysts you need well informed people who know about these issues. I think that’s where the power establishment here differs, say, from the People’s Republic of China or the former Soviet Union, where undesirable knowledge will simply be cast aside rather than incorporated into an understanding of the world. 

You just published a book on post-colonialism, The Postcolonial Aura. How does this work relate to your studies on Chinese anarchism? Also, please explain your discussion of postcolonialism as post-revolutionary. 

In The Postcolonial Aura I tried to raise the question of third world intellectuals. There has been a preoccupation recently with Eurocentricism and the Euro-American oppression of other peoples which sort of sweeps aside the importance of capitalism in shaping the world and how many of those rejected Euro-American values are actually transmitted to the rest of the world through capitalism. It seemed to me, to the extent that capitalism has globalized, it has globalized through the complicity of third world intellectuals, professionals, states, whatever, and, therefore, a critique of power and authority in our day cannot be satisfied with a critique of Eurocentricism or Euro-American domination of the world, but rather must include a criticism of third world intellectuals, professionals, states, power structures, etc.. That’s what I seek to do in this work. 

As for the post-revolutionary aspect, this grew out of a historical curiosity about the meaning of postcolonialism: we have been post-colonials for some time now, why should postcolonialism gain such currency in the late 1980’s? After all, even when we had the radical movements of the 1960’s, most third world societies were already post-colonial or clearly becoming postcolonial, and yet there was a sustainable radicalism in those years, unlike the 1980’s or 1990’s. The question became: What’s the difference? What’s happening here? Why are we talking about postcolonialism, all of a sudden, instead of colonialism, domination, and capitalism, etc? 

The tendencies that have gained the greatest popularity, in the United States especially, are those which tend towards an obsession with ethnicity, inter-ethnic relations, identity politics, etc., tendencies that question and even deny the possibility of collective identities. To me there is no meaningful political activity, especially revolutionary activity, without the sense of a collective identity. It is this undermining of notions of collective identity, combined with the circumstances I referred to earlier, that led me to assert that what we are dealing with was really a post-revolutionary, not just postcolonial, orientation.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

Well, I think any radical has enough reason to be depressed these days: there doesn’t seem to be anything happening and radicalism has sort of been highjacked by conservatives and liberals, and rendered into identity politics.

On the other hand, some of the recent work I and others have done indicates that there is a great deal of resistance and protest going on which is not visible in the old ways because it isn’t happening in major labor unions or big, visible communist parties, etc.. There are people fighting for their livelihoods, trying to create new social forms from the bottom up. Some of it is dangerous, some can be right wing, but much of this has to do with people’s efforts at survival under what’s happening with contemporary capitalism. And there is a proliferation of these movements: women’s movements, ecological movements, social justice movements. They are happening all over and yet contemporary radicals, such as they are, are unwilling to see them.

These are not movements that you would associate with conventional left (read: Marxist) politics. They are movements from the bottom up. I’m not going to call them anarchist – some are feminist, some are ecological – but if there were anarchist movements going on, they would be some-thing like that. I think it is important to draw attention to these movements and theorize them as much as possible. This is what I’m working through: how to really conceptualize radical movements from the bottom up.


(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, fall, 2004)

In the spring of 2003, The New Formulation published an interview with Fernando López about Resistencia Libertaria, a clandestine anarchist organization founded shortly before the Argentinean military seized power in 1976.(1)

This organization engaged in militant opposition in the labor, student, and neighborhood arenas, and also had a military wing with which it financed and defended itself. The group was crushed in 1978 and 80 percent of its more than 100 members perished in the dictatorship’s concentration camps and torture chambers. López had been an active member of Resistencia Libertaria (RL) and our interview with him was the first published account of RL’s history in any language.

Shortly after that issue appeared The New Formulation received a letter from María Esther Tello. Writing from France, she informed us that she had been a member of RL and was the mother of three activists mentioned by Lopez: the beloved Tello brothers, who were among RL’s most active militants and now, like so many others, “disappeared.”

Her letter was forwarded to Argentinean comrades, our interview was made available in Spanish, and Tello visited Argentina in the fall of 2003. Long overdue discussions about RL occurred there and old bonds between comrades who had not seen one another in years began to be renewed. It was an honor to know that The New Formulation had contributed to that process.

The history of RL, and all the losses associated with it, must never be forgotten. We publish the following testimony from Tello as a small attempt to help ensure that it is not.

~ Chuck Morse

– – – – –
My first contacts with libertarian activism

I was born in La Plata and the greater part of my professional life transpired there. I worked in public education, as a teacher in rural schools as well as in schools in working class and middle class neighborhoods. I was also a school inspector in rural and urban areas and a social worker of the Department of University Extension. This is to say that I was always linked to the disadvantaged or proletarian sectors of my country.

I was very young when I entered into anarchist activism. At fifteen years old, I began to link myself with an anarchist group called Voluntad (Will), together with someone who later became my husband and the father of my three disappeared sons. This group was made up of a dozen comrades who, for the most part, were university students or professionals. It was dedicated to the distribution of propaganda coming from the FORA,(2) or what survived of it, to [the creation of] illegal murals ( pintadas murales ), and to theoretical discussions based in the classical literature. Our material came from the Editorial Reconstruir and from La Protesta and Acción Directa or La Antorcha . Our most respected figure was Rodolfo González Pacheco, in whose vacation house I met Emilio Uriondo, an anarchist expropriator who had formed part of Ascaso and Rosigna’s group.(3)

At that time, and much later as well, marked opposition to Peronism and its depiction as a fascist movement was characteristic of the anarchist movement. It is for this reason that our practice remained remote from the working class-which was largely Peronist-except for the relations we maintained with the naval construction workers and the plumbers’ union, who were supporters of anarcho-syndicalism or the anarcho-communism of the FORA of the Fifth Congress.(4)

Although the Voluntad group dissolved, my husband, myself, and other comrades continued our activity in La Plata in a very similar vein. Our group was clandestine and did not have a name. Its methods of action were, in my opinion, more individualist and intellectual than rooted in the working class. Nevertheless, our diverse ties-which had more of a friendship than organizational character-permitted me to meet and in some cases maintain friendships with outstanding figures of Argentine anarchism, such as the aforementioned González Pacheco and Uriondo, the anarcho-syndicalists Umberto Correales and Carlos Kristof, and the veteran of the Spanish Revolution, Manuel Palanca, and his admirable companion Carmen.

This was during the final period of Perón’s rule. Perón was deposed in 1955 by a military coup that brought general Lombardi-a fervent Catholic-to power, who in turn was later replaced by Aramburu and the admiral Rojas. This was a powerful time for me. My comrades, who were primarily from the University of La Plata, discussed the possibility of joining the armed commandos-led by the center-left and above all by the Radical Party-who were to come out in opposition to a possible working class uprising in support of Perón. I knew the reality of these workers, through my students and from own family, whose lives had been objectively improved by the social laws introduced by Perón-the Christmas bonus, the loans for housing, the paid vacations, the support for health care-and I also knew that the improvements in their conditions were not due to the struggles of their unions but rather were concessions made by Perón to his supporters, in order to better manage them later. But, still, they were authentic benefits that had never been obtained-trying to suppress them was to oppose the working class that defended, in Perón, conditions of life to which they doubtlessly had a right. A little later that military government executed loads of workers, intervened in unions, censured the press.

I was the only woman in that group for a long time, although we were joined by Elsa Martínez, Amalia Peralta-Argentina’s first woman guerrilla, as a member of the Peronist Uturunco group, which she joined after leaving ours on friendly terms-and other young women on a temporary basis. This group eventually became inactive and disappeared.

Birth and Development of Resistancia Libertaria

Pablo Daniel, my oldest son, entered the Department of Engineering in 1967 and studied there for a year or two before going into architecture. He was active in the student movement of La Plata and twice arrested by the police during student demonstrations.

He and two other comrades began the nucleus of what later became Resistancia Libertaria . At the beginning it was a student group of three comrades-Pablo, Tino, and el Tano-but little by little others were incorporated. In the middle of 1969, my other two sons, Marcelo and Rafael, and their partners joined. Marcelo studied theater and Rafael studied philosophy in the Humanities Department. There was also myself, Perinola, Cristina, la Turca, Yogurt, Hernán and Elsa (who had been part of the group from the 1950s), and others, many of whom I did not meet directly (I note here that half of us were women).(5)

Almost all had finished or abandoned their university studies, joined the work force, and entered into labor struggles. In the beginning, the organization was structured around two areas of engagement ( frentes )-neighborhood and labor-and the group grew with the integration of other militants from Buenos Aires and especially Córdoba, who enriched it in every sense.

Our home and library was the center of operations and study. The events of Córdoba in 1969, the references to the French May, as well as the more or less close links with the old anarchist comrades, were the breeding ground of ideas and debates. The Department of Architecture of La Plata was also a hotbed of groups and Left tendencies, and the place from where many militants emerged who joined the labor movement in some cases or the armed struggle in others. This is how the initial group expanded, incorporating young men and women that came from other tendencies or who were beginning, more often than not, their activist lives. Couples, who soon had children, also emerged, which created strong links and a sense of solidarity among all of these youths.

Given the organization’s cellular structure that we were obliged to maintain during various military governments, I never joined the same cell as my sons. We also did not discuss what occurred in RL within the family, although sometimes we shared responsibilities and resources.

The particular composition of our group, with an equal proportion of women and tasks not differentiated by sex, offered little ground for feminist objections. Macho attitudes seemed out of place and totally untenable. I remember our dear Perinola and Elsa Martínez confronting the police during the repression of a demonstration in La Plata with the same ardor and efficiency as their male comrades. These two died tragically and their memory always fills us with emotion, as well as that of Yogurt and Cristina.

Inside the organization, self-management was an essential and undisputed practice. It functioned as a style of life and as a solution to everything we embarked upon. I think that we all shared a strong sense of fullness, of living thoroughly, of loving ourselves, and of loving the struggle and all that it embodied.

Activism in Exile

Some weeks before the military dictatorship took power in March 1976, my son Marcelo disappeared. We were persecuted and I had to stay in France where I went in exile, on the decision of my RL group. There I joined in the activities of the Support Committee [for victims of the dictatorship], which a group of Argentines had created in Paris. Later I was a member of and contributed to founding other solidarity groups that fought for the disappeared as well as Argentine and French prisoners. In 1978 my other two sons, Pablo Daniel and Rafael, were disappeared, together with Hernán and Elsa Ramírez and other RL comrades. La Turk was executed in 1976.

I returned to Argentina in 1984 and joined the Madres de Plaza de Mayo of La Plata. That same year, I initiated a trial against those responsible for the genocide. I first did this in Argentina and, when then-president Ménem announced the pardon of the military and police criminals, I returned to France, where I now live. I have again taken legal action against those responsible for the genocide, this time in the French courts. I am presently a member of the CNT, to which I make a modest contribution.

Translated from Spanish by Chuck Morse.

– – – – –
1. Chuck Morse, “Resistencia Libertaria: Anarchist Opposition to the Last Argentine Dictatorship,”The New Formulation Vol. 2, No. 1 (February 2003): 75–88.
2. The FORA is the Federación Obrera Regional Argentina, an anarchist-led labor federation that played a leading role in social struggles at the beginning of the 20th century.
3. See review by Astrid Wessels in this issue for comments on Miguel Rosigna. Francisco Ascaso was a Spanish anarchist, best known for his close association with Buenaventura Durruti.
4. Tello refers here to the specifically anarchist wing of the FORA, which emerged as the result of a split in the organization.
5. In a private letter, Tello explained that “Yogurt” received his nickname “because he was very young when he joined our organization, almost a boy “that would have to drink milk.” As for “Perolina,” this name was an “allusion to her strong inclination to ingest all types of liquids, alcoholic or not, and without order or preference.”

New Release: Paradoxes of Utopia: Anarchist Culture and Politics in Buenos Aires 1890–1910

By Juan Suriano
Translated by Chuck Morse

paradoxesofutopiaWhen the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, many were surprised by the factory takeovers and neighborhood assemblies that resulted. But workers’ control and direct democracy have long histories in Argentina, where from the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, anarchism was the main revolutionary ideology of the labor movement and other social struggles.

Most histories of anarchism in Argentina tend toward dry analyses of labor politics, lists of union acronyms, and the like. For Juan Suriano, that’s just one part of the story. Paradoxes of Utopia gives us an engaging look at fin de siècle Buenos Aires that brings to life the vibrant culture behind one of the world’s largest anarchist movements: the radical schools, newspapers, theaters, and social clubs that made revolution a way of life. Cultural history in the best sense, Paradoxes of Utopia explores how a revolutionary ideology was woven into the ordinary lives of tens of thousands of people, creating a complex tapestry of symbols, rituals, and daily practices that supported-and indeed created the possibility of-the Argentine labor movement.

Without partisanship or didacticism, Suriano creates an innovative panorama that gives equal weigh to the strengths and weakness of anarchism in Argentina, effective strategies and grave mistakes, internal debates and state repression, all contextualized within the country’s broader political, economic, and cultural history.

Interview with Flavio Sosa: APPO is questioning the traditional ways of doing politics

Translated to English by Chuck Morse
November 9, 2006

By Hernán Ouviña

Flavio Sosa is a member of the “provisional collective council” of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO, in Spanish). Despite being one of APPO’s most visible faces at the moment, he insists on stating that “ours is a movement of the grassroots, not leaders.” What follows are some fragments of a much longer conversation that we had with him and other comrades in the tent city in the emblematic Santo Domingo Plaza, a bastion of communalist resistance in Oaxaca.

* * *

How did APPO begin?

There is a long tradition of assemblies in Oaxaca that goes back to the pre-Hispanic era–the popular assembly is the ultimate authority in indigenous communities–and APPO was born with the goal of being an assembly of assemblies; one that would include the Zapotecos, the Mixtecos, the Mixes, the rest of the indigenous peoples, and black people. It arose as an exercise in democracy carried out by the various people, communities, and organizations that want to participate in the movement.

There are 350 organizations in APPO?

Yes. Community and neighborhood organizations participated from the very beginning, as well as unions, political fronts, civil society organizations, and even professional associations. That’s why we say that APPO has many dimensions. We’re going to hold our founding congress on November 10 to November 12, in order to give ourselves a more solid and practical structure, with a platform of principles. Initially, APPO was a popular response to the aggression inflicted upon the teachers and a mechanism for reaching a common goal, which is the departure of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Later, the idea spread of working not only to topple Ulises Ruiz Ortiz but also to transform the conditions of life, to lay the foundations for a new relationship between society and government. In this context, there have been many interesting discussions about the reforms that Oaxaca needs and what direction the government we want should go. Intellectuals, academics, religious people, and members of other organizations have taken part. It’s as if there’s APPO on the one side and the street movement on the other, which is ultimately turning itself into a movement that is pacifist yet able to respond to attacks, such as those that we suffered at the hands of the Federal Preventative Police (FPP).

Why was the name changed from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca to the Popular Assembly of the Peoples (plural)?

This happened in the beginning of September in response to a criticism. We used “popular assembly” because that’s the space in the community for discussion, where debates happen and decisions are made. However, after thinking about it, we decided that it had to be of the “peoples” not “people,” because we are many peoples, many ethnicities. We have different roots and therefore different perspectives.

How did the leadership emerge and what is its relation to the grassroots?

The leadership came out of a general assembly that took place on June 20. It’s a council that we call “provisional collective,” but we’re going to try to give it a more definitive character at our congress. It will represent regions as well as the movement’s most active organizations, considering that there are different levels of participation. Some people are active briefly, then withdraw a bit, and then engage again when there are marches or sit-ins. Involvement varies according to each organization’s commitment and ability. There are also some groups that are very localized in specific regions and so it’s difficult for them to be in the city all the time. Oaxaca is very spread out geographically. For example, it takes 10 or 12 hours to get to Isthmus (of Tehuantepec) and the Sierra is just as far. That’s why it wasn’t possible to have permanent leaders at a central level. We’ve made various efforts, but APPO’s regionalism still isn’t very consolidated. APPO needs to reflect all the communities, which is what we’re working to do.

What’s going to happen with APPO after the constitutive congress?

We don’t know what direction this will go in, because we first have to listen to what the grassroots say. This movement was born as a response to a brutal aggression, but began to question everything: to question the media, which it seized and took over in some instances; to question the traditional ways of doing politics and attempt to articulate new methods of doing them; to question the political parties and stop any one from calling the shots; even to question the leadership itself and create a collective leadership; and also to question a bad government and try to remove it. This has made it an anti-systemic movement that alarms the political class. “How can a protest movement challenge the status quo and how we do politics?” the politicians ask themselves. Well, since the people are questioning all the traditional ways of doing politics, we think that it’s the people who should invent something new at this congress.

Are there arrest warrants out for APPO’s leadership?

There are arrest warrants for all the leaders. In fact, apparently more than 300 orders have been issued. Yesterday we learned that there was a new search warrant for Radio Universidad, supposedly to look for arms and arrest some prominent militants. We do our best not to be there, in order not to give them any pretexts. The repression has been endless. They’ve even thrown Molotov cocktails at the homes of APPO’s principal activists and have tried to mess with the homes of others. Ulises has made terror a routine political practice. He uses the police as well as hired assassins and went after us up through Thursday, imprisoning us. There’s a radio station named Ciudadana, which we call Radio Raccoon, that tells people to persecute us, to go to our homes. They even try to implicate us in criminal acts like drug trafficking to justify the repression. None of this has any basis: ours is a popular movement.

What can you tell us about the dialogue due to begin this Monday, November 6, in the city’s Cathedral?

We had always wanted a space for dialogue between APPO and civil society, because we knew that we had to address the conflict. But then the FPP came and began to raid people’s homes and arrest popular leaders in some neighborhoods. That was when the idea of the dialogue in the Cathedral arose. We spoke with Oaxaca Church authorities, who imposed a series of conditions on us. At first we agreed, even though we thought that they were excessive, because peace is an urgent necessity. However, our position changed after the battle in the University City, given that the correlation of forces and also the spirit of the people had changed. The situation in Oaxaca also looks different from a national perspective. Since the FPP’s defeat in battle, the existence of the FPP itself is now at risk, politically speaking. This gives us a very important role in the national context and, although we think that peace is imperative, we don’t want to our actions to always be defensive and conditioned. We want to go on the offensive. This is the framework for the megamarch that we’re organizing on Sunday. But it was our discussions with organisms of civil society that prompted us to create the dialogue that will begin on Monday.

Will a representative from the federal government attend?

I don’t think so, although we’ve asked to speak with them and for them to listen to us. And if the participants that are there tell APPO: “it’s not necessary for you to speak,” then we’ll respect that. We’ll leave this space to civil society. We think it’s an important space and that it will help us find a path to peace. There will be this route on the one hand and, on the other, that of popular mobilization, on which we’re going to push very hard. We also have a proposal for direct dialogue with the President, but we need our prisoners to be freed and the FPP to get out first. There’s no doubt that the solution to the conflict has to involve the departure of Ulises Ruiz and the implementation of the existing commitments for the transformation of Oaxaca.

If there is no governmental delegation at the dialogue, who will be your counterpart?

It won’t be a bilateral dialogue, but rather a multi-lateral space. We intend to say what we think so that we and various civil society actors can come to a conclusion about the best routes for peace and for getting the police and Ulises Ruiz to leave Oaxaca. That’s our objective, at least. What we expect from the discussion is good sense, proposals, and serious thought. We’ll see if we can come to an understanding.

What will happen if you force Ulises out but the federal government installs another governor with similar characteristics?

That’s not possible, because Oaxaca won’t allow it and they know it. There’s going to be a party here when Ulises falls. People who haven’t protested with us before are going to run into the street saying, “We won! . . . I was always with you!” We’ve already seen this happen during the marches. Some people don’t participate at first, but when they see themselves in this enormous mirror of the megamarches, they join.

What is the goal of this Sunday’s megamarch?

To demonstrate the movement’s strength and popular support. Also, to show our opposition to the FPP and our desire for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Are you thinking of coordinating your struggle with the other great movements in Mexico, like the Zapatistas and the civil resistance to the electoral fraud?

Sadly, that’s not our priority right now, although we are committed to the democratic transformation of the country. We will see what’s the best way to fight for this. The social fabric in Oaxaca has suffered terrible wounds: people have lost jobs, the teachers aren’t teaching; there are problems in the communities; the health sector has shut down. Third parties have been affected, it has to be recognized. We’re in an emergency situation and need to resolve local matters first. But in no way does that mean that we will disregard national issues. In fact, we think it’s necessary to connect ourselves to the Other Campaign, the National Democratic Convention, and various additional organizations.

Some criticize you for focusing on the fall of Ulises Ruiz, given that the election of Felipe Calderón was also the result of fraud.

While it wouldn’t be right for Calderón to become president, that’s not our principle responsibility but rather that of the entire national movement. We don’t want to become the vanguard of the country’s movement. That isn’t our task. The people didn’t take to the streets of Oaxaca so that the APPO can become Mexico’s vanguard.

Members of APPO say that your movement isn’t about leaders but the grassroots. What are they talking about?

Look, you’re speaking to one of APPO’s most visible faces right now. Suppose that I decide to make a deal with Ulises: in that case, they’d push me aside and the movement would continue. I don’t make the decisions. I have a responsibility—to speak with the press and articulate a position—but I don’t control APPO. Sometimes my opinions are received favorably in the assemblies and other times they say “this guy is crazy” and simply ignore me. This isn’t a party-based movement. And you can’t try to discipline it, because it isn’t an army either. For example, yesterday it took the “provisional council” a great deal of effort to get something passed in a general assembly, despite the fact that we brought a proposal, agreed upon by consensus, arguing that the main highways should be cleared. We barely managed to get it passed. But it’s going to take a lot of work to get the base to accept that agreement, even if we explain all the virtues of the proposal. That’s something that no leader can pull off.

You’ll also clear the area around the Ciudad Universitaria, like the Cinco Señores Crossing (where the FPP was defeated last Thursday)?

There’s going to be a special situation there. If you suggest to the university people that they remove the blockades around the Ciudad Universitaria, they’ll tell you to go to hell. That’s why I said that this movement doesn’t depend on leaders. Here’s another example: they have a committee that runs Radio Universidad and, on the day of the fighting I said, “Listen, give me a moment to send a message.” They told me, “No, you can’t go in. There’s an emergency.” I insisted, telling them that I only needed a minute, but the response was the same. That’s why we say that this movement isn’t homogeneous, but multi-directional. It’s the conventional view of politics that leads people to search for someone to be the leader, perhaps someone who is at the head of the demonstrations or appears most frequently on television. Actually, some guys here painted “if you create a leader, you create a tyrant” on a wall. They have good reasons to say that and we respect them. That’s why it’s important to understand that this movement is about all of society, trying to live together and move forward together. There are comrades that wear the hammer and sickle symbol and then there are the base church communities that come with the Virgin of Guadalupe. That’s the great strength of our movement. That’s why we always say, “it’s not about the leaders.” On one occasion, when this phrase began to circulate, someone made a sign saying, “This isn’t a movement of leaders, but the grassroots” and the group later signed it. Shortly afterwards, some thoughtful young guys added underneath with a pen: “it’s not about leaders . . . or even groups.” That’s the reality.


New Book: Resistencia libertaria

[first posted in 2007]

One could be excused for thinking that Latin American revolutionaries were all authoritarians in the 1960s and 1970s. Leading figures like Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Savlador Allende were deeply committed to a state-centered, top down approach to social change and groups like Uruguay’s Tupamaros or Brazil’s MR-8, which might have seemed more libertarian, were devoted Marxist-Leninists. It would appear that anarchists had no presence during the period.

The truth is that they were quite active and made important contributions to the battles being waged against the military dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. While their efforts are largely not reflected in the historical record, this omission says more about biases among historians, and the fear of disclosure that many survivors have inherited from the era, than anarchists’ real significance to the march of events during those terrifying decades.

This is why the recent publication of Verónica Diz and Fernando López Trujillo’s Resistencia Libertaria is such a good thing. Their (Spanish-language) book is the first comprehensive study of Resistencia Libertaria (RL) in any language and will hopefully help bring anarchists into the picture. RL was a clandestine Argentine anarchist organization founded shortly before the Argentine military seized power in 1976. It was active in the student, labor, and neighborhood movements of the time and also had a military wing with which it defended and financed its activities. The group had between 100 and 130 members at its peak as well as a much larger circle of supporters. The state crushed the organization in 1978 and 80 percent of its militants suffered the dictatorship’s concentration camps and torture chambers.

López and Diz qualify their work as a “first approximation” of RL’s history. Their book covers the origins of the group, some of its activities prior to the dictatorship, and the generalized crisis that erupted after the 1976 military coup. It also has five appendices which contain relevant historical documents as well as related articles.

The authors: Fernando López, a historian, is one of the few surviving RL members and author of Vidas en rojo y negro: Una historia del anarquismo en la década infame (Letra Libre, 2005). Verónica Diz is a journalist and professor of history whose work has focused on the relationship between anarchism and feminism.

See also:

English readers interested in learning more about Resistencia Libertaria should check out an interview that I conducted with López in 2002: “Resistencia Libertaria: Anarchist Opposition to the Last Argentine Dictatorship.” Spanish readers might wish to download the prologue and first chapter of López and Diz’s book from the publisher’s website. Those interested in contemporary Argentine anarchism may be interested in López’s “Some Notes on the Argentine Anarchist Movement in the Emergency“; for the movement’s early years, see the growing archive of Latin American anarchist material on this site.

Below is a short video documenting the creation of a mural in honor of disappeared members of Resistencia Libertaria. The mural was a project of Argentina’s Organización Socialista Libertaria and the muralists were known as the “Unidad Muralista Hermanos Tello,” a name evoking the memory of the three Tello brothers, who were leading members of RL and are all disappeared.

The Life – or Death – of the Anti-Globalization Movement

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 2004)

The anti-globalization movement that erupted onto the scene in Seattle 1999 frightened elites and inspired activists around the world to fight the system in a utopian, anti-authoritarian way. However, this movement has occupied a much less significant place on the public stage since the terror attacks of September 11th, 2001. Is it over?

We asked Marina Sitrin (IAS grant recipient) and Chuck Morse (IAS board member) for their thoughts on this question.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Chuck Morse’s Response: Revolutionary movements come and go. The classical anarchist movement, the black liberation movement, the ecology movement, and others pushed against the boundaries of the social order and then—when faced with challenges they could not confront—collapsed into history.

The anti-globalization movement has also come and gone. It leapt to world attention during the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and died with the February 2002 mobilizations against the World Economic Forum in New York City. Although struggles against capitalist globalization are ongoing, this particular movement is in need of an obituary.

Signs of its demise are everywhere. The movement is no longer capable of stirring fear among the ruling class or even generating significant media attention (despite the fact that the protests continue). Activist efforts to shape the movement have also diminished dramatically: books and documentaries on the movement now appear much less frequently than before, strategy summits are far less common, strategic innovations (like Indymedia) have ceased to emerge, and once vibrant internal debates have largely dried up.

These things indicate more than a temporary lull in activity: the anti-globalization movement is dead.

It died because it faltered when faced with a key opportunity to deepen its attack on the capitalist system. It bungled a historical moment and, as a result, lost its momentum as well as its significance for the public at large. Although activists may take up some of the movement’s motifs in the future, these activists as well as the political context will be entirely different.

The anti-globalization movement was unique in three ways. First, its opposition to global capital was premised on a deeply moral critique of the reduction of people and nature to salable objects, and in this sense, it challenged the very premises of the market economy. Second, its emphasis on participatory direct action ensured that the movement was truly democratic and not divided between a cadre of professional organizers and a herd of passive followers. Finally, its focus on tactics but not politics allowed people with diverse and often contradictory convictions to work together and find some common ground.

The movement threw itself headlong into a conflict with the architects of the global economy, and the confrontation that ensued was enormously educational. The summit protests illustrated the deep contrast between the cruel, profit-driven world of the global capitalists and “another world” premised on the joyous affirmation of life. Everything—even the style with which each side presented its case—seemed to emphasize the divide. The violence that erupted at protest after protest was also very instructive: the police made our point about the barbarism of capital by savagely repressing dissidents, and the sight of city streets in flames punctuated the irreconcilable conflict between the two visions of the world in play.

The anti-globalization movement thus polarized the debate about the future of the world system and, by virtue of its success, confronted a question on which its fate would hang: if global capitalism must be abandoned, what is the alternative? What groups and institutions should structure economic activity? Nation-states? Associations of nation-states? Communities? Social movements?

The world waited for an answer, and unfortunately one was never produced. Although various proposals and schemes floated around activist circles, a reconstructive vision was neither seriously debated nor advanced. There were vigorous discussions of tactical issues (like the role of violence at protests) and moral issues (like the impact of privilege on activists), but the fundamental political questions remained unaddressed.

The movement not only failed to confront these questions but also developed a political culture that undermined attempts to do so. The constant affirmation of diversity, plurality, and openness—which are undoubtedly virtues, but vacuous outside a political context—discouraged people from seriously reflecting on the movement’s goals. Indeed, during its terminal stages, the movement seemed flooded with professors, grad students, and journalists who gravely warned us not to present an affirmative, coherent alternative.

Admittedly, the deferral of political questions had advantages. It allowed people to come together whose aims seemed deeply conflicted—lobbyists and anarchists, turtles and teamsters, Communists and Christians, etc.—and unexpectedly rich dialogues often resulted. Many discovered that they had more in common with one another than they previously supposed, and this helped the old boundaries of the Left relax a bit.
But political questions cannot be avoided for long, especially by a movement that has captured the world’s attention. Indeed, people became increasingly impatient with the movement’s inability to define what it was for, as evidenced by the countless journalists who wrote countless articles trying to penetrate the movement’s aims. But the movement did not procure an answer, and more often than not, rejected the very legitimacy of the question.

And then September 11th blew the movement off the stage. Although it reentered the debate in February 2002 in New York—valiantly asserting that opposition to globalization will not be silenced by terror—the movement lacked an anchor and thus could not regain its momentum amid the storms of war that began to sweep the world at the time.

It is tempting to argue that the anti-globalization movement lives on in the Zapatistas, the Argentine uprising of 2001, Brazil’s Landless Workers’ Movement, and other ongoing struggles in the “global south.” Although these movements and the one that emerged in Seattle should be understood as parts of a broader, worldwide opposition to global capital, they are not continuous. The Mexican, Brazilian, and Argentine movements do not define themselves as participants in the anti-globalization movement and, more substantively, they do not focus primarily on the institutions of the world economy but rather on domestic political authorities and their national polices. North American activists need to be attentive to these differences.

In a sense the movement—or at least the form in which we knew it—was destined to die. This is not because utopian aspirations are doomed to failure (they are not) or because struggles against capitalist globalization have ended (of course they haven’t). It is because revolutionary social movements aim to transform the circumstances from which they emerge and thus must always abandon old forms of struggle in order to adapt to new conditions (conditions that they have, in part, created). In a way, the most successful revolutionary movement will be one that renders the need for revolutionary struggle obsolete altogether.

What is more alarming than the death of the movement is the failure to reflect deeply on our inability to advance a coherent alternative when presented with the opportunity to do so. The anti-globalization movement did push beyond the boundaries of the present and helped us imagine “another world,” but its emancipatory aims were unrealized. We must embrace the chasm between our aspirations and our circumstances—between the “is” and the “ought”—and use it as an environment in which to forge an even more vigorous challenge to the world we have inherited.

From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory (spring, 2004)


The Ends of Politics and Utopia

The Ends of Politics and Utopia

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 2001)
by Chuck Morse

The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy by Russell Jacoby. 240 pp, New York, Basic Books, 2000 The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the

Public Sphere by Carl Boggs, 310 pp, New York: Guilford, 2000

There is no doubt that the thinkers and activists who shaped the anarchist tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries expanded our sense of social possibilities in ways that still seem vital today. Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it is hard not to be inspired by Proudhon’s polemical wit, Kropotkin’s generous radicalism, or the deep social reconstruction carried out by the Spanish anarchists.

But there is also no doubt that circumstances have changed radically since their time. A contemporary anarchism must be much broader than the old thinkers and activists imagined and we must contend with new barriers to the creation of an egalitarian, cooperative, and decentralized society. We would be ill-advised – to put it mildly – to try to build a movement on the works of a Proudhon or a Kropotkin (etc), but we can and should emulate their example by fighting the forces that hinder the realization of existing liberatory potentials.

Fortunately there is a vast literature that can help us in this task. Although we will often be disappointed by the lack of radicalism or absence of nerve in much of it, there are nonetheless many works that can help us build an anarchist critique for today. The two books I review here have instructive contributions as well as shortcomings. They are Carl Boggs’s The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere and Russell Jacoby’s The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. In different ways both Boggs and Jacoby want to confront an obstacle of serious concern to anarchists: the political and intellectual forces that obstruct the development of a radical opposition in America. Jacoby grapples with the decline of a utopian spirit among intellectuals and academics, whereas Boggs examines forces in our political culture that undermine the emergence of a challenge to the status quo. Although Jacoby and Boggs offer pessimistic appraisals of our current situation – as indicated by the titles of their books – they clearly hope that their critical diagnoses will play some role in the development of a remedy.

The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy
Jacoby’s objective in The End of Utopia is to describe the loss of a utopian commitment in American intellectual culture and to indicate the negative consequences this yields for theory. He is concerned specifically with the fact that social thinkers are no longer driven by the conviction that “the future could fundamentally surpass the present . that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.” (XI-XII). Although Jacoby weakly asserts that we should be worried by the demise of the utopian spirit because its radicalism gave liberalism its backbone, serving as its oppositional “goad and critic”(p. 8 ), it is clear that what really disturbs him is the disappearance of leftwing utopian social critics who oppose capitalism and yet remain democratic in culture and politics.

Jacoby begins his discussion of the retreat from utopia by chronicling the reconciliation to capitalism that is so common among today’s self-styled ‘left’ intellectuals. He cites numerous cases in which supposedly radical theorists either counsel us to accept the market as the ultimate determinant of economic life or advance ameliorative measures that are really forms of acquiescence (‘we should create responsible corporations’, etc). He paints a portrait of cynical ex-Marxists and Ivy League policy wonks who urge conciliation with capitalism to rationalize their own relatively comfortable positions within the social hierarchy. This makes for good but macabre reading, although Jacoby’s point is that by abandoning a confrontation with capitalism these theorists not only relinquish the struggle against the left ‘s historic adversary, but also the very idea of an alternative social order.

Jacoby’s discussion of the rapprochement with capitalism sets the stage for the rest of the book, in which he analyzes an intellectual culture that becomes increasingly adrift as it moves further and further away from a radical stance. Jacoby takes aim at a multiculturalism that descends, in the absence of any larger transformative vision, into estimable but prosaic exhortations (e.g., ‘we should respect people who are different’) or claims of ‘subversiveness’ that lack political content. Jacoby expands upon this by castigating academics for allowing the democratic critique of mass culture to devolve into a celebration of consumer culture (for example, he contrasts Dwight McDonald’s anti-authoritarian cultural criticism with contemporary authors who write appreciatively about things like soap operas and MTV). Jacoby points out that this gradual de-radicalization is accompanied by changes in the relationship of intellectuals to society. He treats the chilling professionalization of intellectuals along with trite claims of ‘marginality’ made by well-paid, high-status academics. If professionalization integrates intellectuals into the market, then claims of marginality often boil down to a demand for better salaries or more prominent teaching positions (that is, ‘market share’). Jacoby also takes issue with forms of cultural study that trade objective for subjective standards of truth, and thus abandon the utopian capacity to assert truths and universals against the existing social order. He argues that relativistic trends in academia facilitate a turn toward conservatism by discarding the right (and obligation) to pass judgment upon the world. Jacoby concludes his book by trying to refute common arguments against utopianism and pleas with us, as Theodor Adorno once urged, to ‘contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.’

Jacoby’s book is a trenchant indictment of left academics and he gives substance to a feeling shared by many (including myself) that the whole academic establishment – even its purportedly radical wings – is deeply conservative. It is certainly refreshing to see celebrated thinkers such as Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, and bell hooks taken to task for a lack of vision, self-indulgence, or accommodation. This is good material for anarchists who would like to see the reemergence of an embattled anti-authoritarian intellectual culture, especially those of us who have spent some time around the university.

But there are also real problems with Jacoby’s book. While he shows the consequences of the retreat from a utopian commitment – the absence of critical standards, accommodation to injustice, inanity, etc. – he lacks a utopian vision of his own. He faults others for lacking affirmative ideals, but Jacoby doesn’t advance any either. Jacoby wants to see a utopian left – an Antonio Gramsci, a Herbert Marcuse, groups with a bold critique and a politics for realizing it – but all he really gives to this project is his bitter elegy. Unfortunately the power to complain is not also a creative power.

Jacoby not only fails to advance a utopian vision but also abandons the terrain upon which one could be formulated. Utopianism asserts that the existing society can be criticized according to the standards of reason and ultimately rendered rational. It thus assumes a strong connection between the realm of ideas and the world as a whole: it criticizes ‘the real’ for failing to embody ‘the ideal’ and fights to reconcile the two. Jacoby could have helped legitimate this strategy by theorizing the relationship between the intellectual culture that he describes and larger social structures. This could have affirmed, at least implicitly, the possibility that ideas and the world can be brought into accord through a utopian synthesis. Although Jacoby does not deny a connection between ideas and other dimensions of social existence – and clearly believes that they are connected – he does not formulate this in any way. Jacoby’s defense of utopia thus neglects the basic precondition of a utopian stance. For this reason his book is more of a protest than an act of vision and, while valuable in many respects, it will ultimately disappoint anarchists who are committed to both critique and reconstruction. We can only hope that in the future Jacoby will join those of us who want to reconstruct a strong affirmative vision and apply his formidable intellectual skills to this task.

The End of Politics: Corporate Power and the Decline of the Public Sphere
Boggs shares Jacoby’s preoccupation with the loss of cultural resources in America that would enable a confrontation with the status quo. Whereas Jacoby focuses on changes in the realm of ideas, Boggs focuses on politics. He contends that Americans have become mired in a political culture (or anti-political culture) that prevents us from challenging the sources of our social and ecological problems, despite the fact that we enjoy greater access to information and education than ever before. Whereas Jacoby points to changes in the intellectual arena, Boggs traces this development to the expanded influence of corporate power and economic globalization. Boggs’ effort to connect the diminution of the political culture to larger changes in the social structure renders his project a little more ambitious than Jacoby’s.

Boggs alleges that economic globalization and the expansion of corporate power produce two related crises for those who want to build a democratic movement against social injustice. First, the corporate invasion of social life turns American party politics into a façade, undermines the capacities necessary for civic engagement among citizens as a whole, and produces a mass media that consistently conceals or avoids substantive social issues. This leaves us with a hyper-alienated political consciousness structured by a hyper-antagonistic social order. Second, Boggs explains how this produces cultural and quasi-political trends that militate, at their essence, against a real confrontation with power. Boggs explores things such as therapeutic fads that cast self-actualization in utterly asocial and anti-political terms, collective outbursts of anger (such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots) that lack real political direction, and post-modern intellectual orientations defined by a spirit of withdrawal and pessimism.

These related developments shape what Boggs describes as a wholesale retreat from the public sphere, something Boggs seems to imagine as a common arena in which citizens can openly discuss shared problems and develop common solutions. It is only here, according to Boggs, that citizens can begin to confront the world’s problems, and the loss of this realm suggests bleak outcomes. Moreover, the major ideological tendencies of the past – liberalism and Marxism – are incapable of facilitating a recovery of the public sphere. The liberal emphasis on private strivings over the general interest and the Marxian reduction of politics to economics gives these traditions a deeply anti-political character that renders them more impotent than critical.

Boggs makes a powerful statement against our contemporary culture, and one that should resonate with many anarchists. While his description of the joke that party politics has become and the complicity of the mass media is common coin among most Americans, his critique is nonetheless a welcome corrective to the omnipotent calls for ‘renewed citizen’s participation’ bandied about by academics who refuse to acknowledge the deeply undemocratic and corrupt character of our political system or the endless emptiness characteristic of American political discourse. Likewise, his treatment of anti-political cultural fads should speak to those of us who believe that our personal development could be linked directly to a project of political transformation.

Boggs also treats anarchism rather sympathetically in several sections of the book and he clearly wants to align himself with popular movements against social injustice, although unfortunately he never fully commits himself to this project. The ambiguity of his commitments is first apparent in the difficulty he has defining the public sphere, a difficulty so grave that it is ultimately impossible to determine exactly what he means by the term. For example, he tells us that corporate behemoths “restrict the development of an open, dynamic public sphere”, which seems feasible, but then on the same page he tells us that these huge corporations start “to constitute a new public sphere of their own”(69). But, wait, what about the “decline of the public sphere” mentioned in the subtitle? This sort of confusion is compounded when he states that he wants “an enlarged public sphere”, that “the public sphere is broken down into a host of rival interest groups”(233) (so, how could you enlarge it?) or, in other places, that we need a “recovery of the public sphere”(135) or a “reopening of the public sphere”(113). Is the public sphere declining, broken up, lost, closed, or being refashioned? It does not seem unreasonable to demand that Boggs provide a better treatment of an idea so central to his book.

However, it ultimately becomes clear that his equivocations camouflage the retrograde nature of his political proposals. While he would like to side with radically democratic social movements, his conception of politics is utterly state-centered. In fact, it appears that what he means by the decline of the public sphere is only the decline of a political space through which citizens can influence government policy. For Boggs, government is the one public arena “that can effectively resist corporate hegemony”(258) and hence the solution to the expansion of corporate power and globalization. Boggs does not defend or explain this view of government, but merely asserts it and evidently believes that such a declaration alone is sufficient. That there has never been a just state, one that genuinely represented the will of the people, even according to the liberal democratic standards, is a fact that Boggs neither acknowledges nor denies, but yet it remains a mystery why he thinks the historic character of the state might suddenly be transformed. But, besides this, his argument that the state is the only institution capable of restraining global capital is hardly affirmative: nuclear war could also stop globalization, but does this make it desirable? And, even if a state-centered politics was attractive for some reason, it is far from evident that the state can in fact restrain the power of global capital. I happen to believe that only popular anti-statist movements can muster the deep strength necessary to confront the forces of capital. In any case, his panegyrics for the state make a morbid spectacle and it is here that those of us with truly democratic convictions must part company with Boggs.

The End
Both of these books struggle with important issues for anarchists, issues that we will have to confront in the course of building an anarchism for today. Surely we will have to transform the disposition of the intellectual culture if anarchist ideas will ever be fairly evaluated, not to mention embodied in popular movements. Likewise, anarchists will have to contend with the forces in our political culture that frustrate collective resistance and empowerment if we are to become a serious presence on the political landscape once again.

The failures of Jacoby and Boggs’ books are instructive. It is not enough, like Jacoby, to critique without also reconstructing. Works of this sort may exert a spirit of tragic intransigence in the face of an unwanted world, but such posturing offers little to those who want to build an alternative. It is also inadequate, like Boggs, to damn our political culture while remaining so restrained in one’s affirmative ideals. It is up to anarchists to build a radical social criticism that is grounded in the real world and yet deeply utopian. If we do this, then we will have emulated the most exemplary aspects of the classical anarchist tradition while also making an invaluable contribution to the realization of new liberatory potentialities. ~


The Revolutionary Institutions: The Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias

Anarchists played a pivotal role in the early phase of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, particularly in Catalonia. They led the resistance to Franco’s forces, their organizations and unions structured social life during the tumult, and they alone had a strong vision of what type of society they wanted to create.

To some militants in the CNT and FAI, it seemed that the time to declare libertarian communism had arrived: they could finally begin building the new world that they had been dreaming of during their nearly seventy years of organizing. They were on the threshold, they believed, of a truly anarchist society.

Others disagreed. The fact that the majority of anti-fascists—not to mention the majority of Spaniards—were hostile to the anarchists meant that they would need to rule against their opponents if they attempted to institute their utopian ideals. They would, in parlance of the day, have to impose an “anarchist dictatorship” if they tried to “go for everything.” Many found this possibility intolerably frightening and contradictory.

But there was another option: they could cooperate with the other anti-fascist forces—some of whom were bitterly anti-anarchist—and try to garner enough support to later realize their maximal program on a more consensual basis. This way they could avoid the obvious dilemmas of an “anarchist dictatorship,” although it would mean pushing their revolutionary aspirations into the (potentially very distant) future.

They decided to collaborate, as is well known, and by doing so set the parameters of their intervention for the remainder of the civil conflict.

The following article offers insight why they made this fateful choice, describes their decisive first encounter with the President of Catalonia, and details the activity of the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias, the institutional framework for their cooperation with the other anti-fascists tendencies. It is one of few accounts of anarchist activity during the early period of the war written by a direct participant.

The essay (“Los Organismos Revolucionarios: El Comité Central de las Milicias Antifascistas de Cataluña,” in Spanish) was first printed in Solidaridad Obrera and later republished as a chapter in a book titled De julio a Julio: un año de lucha (Barcelona: Tierra y Libertad, 1937). It appears in English here for the first time.

– Chuck Morse

* * *

J. García Oliver:
The Revolutionary Institutions: The Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias

In addition to the other articles in this volume, which first appeared in the special issue of Fragua Social on July 19, we felt it appropriate to include the following piece from Solidaridad Obrera, which was printed on the same date. It offers a general overview of the revolution in Catalonia through a description of the activity of its particular institution: the Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias.

– – –

The leader of the Mozos de Escuadra [autonomous Catalan police] met us at the Generalidad entrance. We were armed to the teeth—rifles, machine-guns, and pistols—and ragged and dirty from all the dust and smoke.

“We’re the CNT and FAI representatives that Companys called,” we told him. “The people with us are our guard.”

He greeted us warmly and led us into the Orange Tree Courtyard. There was confusion and disorder in the Generalidad Palace, but joy was also visible in the faces of all those old and young Catalanists, Mozos, Guards, police, and youth from the Esquerra and Estat Catalá. They were delighted by a glory dreamed of for centuries and yet not experienced until that very day, during which some CNT and FAI men were brought to meet the President, determined and making an impressive racket with their weapons. Catalonia, always mistreated and oppressed by the central government, trampled by Spain’s military caste, had just defeated the fascist monster. And how easy it was! In thirty hours of heavy fighting, the men from the CNT and the FAI, whose way of doing battle reminds one so much of the Almogavars, distinguished themselves above all others in the bloody and victorious struggle for freedom. This is why their representatives were welcomed with such affection and esteem, despite the fact that they carried an abundance of arms which, in anarchist hands, would previously have been regarded as murder weapons but were now justly seen as instruments of freedom.

We left our guard in the Orange Tree Courtyard, which became an encampment.

Companys stood to receive us. He was visibly excited. He extended his hand and would have hugged us if his pride—clearly impacted by what he intended to say—had not stopped him.

The introductions were brief. We sat down with our rifles between our knees. Companys stated the following:

“First of all, I must acknowledge that the CNT and FAI have never been treated in the way that they deserve, given their real importance. You have always been harshly persecuted. Even I, who had been your ally, was forced by political realties to resist and persecute you, much as it pained me to do so. Today you are masters of the city and Catalonia. It was you who defeated the fascists, although I hope you will not take offense if I point out that you had some help from Guards, Mozos, and men loyal to my party.”

Companys paused for a moment and then continued slowly:

“But the truth is that you—harshly oppressed until two days ago—defeated the fascist soldiers. And, knowing who and what you are, of course I will speak to you in the most heartfelt terms. You’ve won. Everything is in your hands. If you do not want or need me as President of Catalonia, tell me now, so that I can become another soldier in the war against fascism.

“However, if you think that in this office—which I would have left only if the fascists killed me—I, my party, my name, and my prestige can be useful in the struggle—which has ended in Barcelona, but rages on in the rest of Spain—then you can count on me and my loyalty as a man and politician. I am convinced that a shameful past has died today and genuinely want Catalonia to march in forefront of the most socially advanced nations.”

Companys was speaking with obvious candor. He was a malleable, realistic man, who experienced the tragedy of his people very deeply. They had been saved from secular slavery by the anarchists and he, using the language demanded by the circumstances, took the lead in a uniquely dignified way, something so uncommon among Spanish politicians. Without letting himself be frightened by the revolution, and understanding that it would redefine the boundaries of the possible, he intended to play a central role, as a Catalan who knew that the hour of his country had rung and as a man with extremely advanced ideas who did not fear the most audacious social interventions, which are always expressed in lived reality.

We had gone to listen and could not commit ourselves to anything. It was our organizations that had to make the decisions. We explained this to Companys.

The importance of this historic encounter between Companys and our organizations will never be fully grasped: indeed, Spain’s fate was decided in Catalonia, between libertarian communism, which would have meant anarchist dictatorship, and democracy, which meant collaboration.

Companys told us that representatives from all the anti-fascist groups in Catalonia were waiting in another room. If we agreed to participate in the meeting that he, the President of the Generalidad, wanted to call, then he would propose the formation of a body that could continue the revolutionary struggle in Catalonia until victory.

We agreed to attend the meeting, in our capacity as intermediaries and emissaries. It took place in another room where, as Companys had said, representatives from the Esquerra Republicana, the Rabassaires, the Republican Union, the POUM, and the Socialist Party were waiting. I don’t remember the names well, either because of the rush, exhaustion, or because I was never told them. Nin, Comorera, etc., etc. Companys explained why a militias committee should be created. It would reorganize life in Catalonia, which the fascist uprising had disrupted acutely, and build a military force that would fight the rebels wherever they might be. Indeed, the balance of the adversarial forces was still unclear in those moments of national confusion.

For democratic collaboration and against revolutionary dictatorship

The CNT and FAI’s reply to President Companys’s proposal was extremely significant. We responded to him, the President of a region saved from servitude by non-governmental forces, in a way that reflected the unanticipated revolutionary maturity and constructive potential of forces that had never had their capacity to rule tested, even though they were a majority in the country.

The CNT and FAI decided to accept collaboration and democracy, and thus renounce the revolutionary totalitarianism that would strangle the revolution with an anarchist, confederal dictatorship. Trusting the word and person of a Catalan democrat, we permitted Companys to carry on as President; we agreed to the formation of the militias committee and a distribution of forces within it that was not just–the UGT and the Socialist Party, minorities in Catalonia, received the same number of seats as the triumphant anarchists and CNTistas–but a sacrifice designed to lead the authoritarian parties down the path of faithful collaboration and away from suicidal competitions.

The Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias, the real revolutionary government of Catalonia

The Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias (CCAM) was constituted by a decree from the Generalidad. It was composed of popular, anti-fascist forces. For our sake, accepting Companys’s proposition, we did not object to the inclusion of any anti-fascist group. We were the largest force, and it was upon us that the challenge of creating real democracy fell, although we did not imitate the bigwigs who relentlessly harass their so-called “junior partners.” Without respect for the real strength of the groups in question, the CCAM was made up by the CNT, the FAI, the Esquerra, the Rabassaires, the Republican Union, the POUM, the Socialist Party, and the UGT. The Generalidad sent a representative named Prunés and a military leader by the name of Pérez Farrás, both of whom were appointed by Companys.

The Committee immediately set up shop in a large, modern building in the Palace Plaza, which had previously been occupied the Seamen’s School. It quickly organized the first expeditions of militiamen to the Aragon front. Three of its members–Durruti, Pérez Farrás, and Del Barrio–took control of two sectors of struggle in this first departure of forces. In later expeditions, the Committee sent me, Rovira, and Durán y Rosell to the front. The cataclysm had shattered the social, political, legal, and economic foundations of the life in Catalonia. The CCAM, a dynamic, popular body and authentic representation of the proletarian masses, had to respond to the war, hurrying to create, through the tireless efforts of some of its men, everything that it demanded. The organization of armies, military training, health, supply, transportation, arms production, directing operations, etc, etc.

As a whole, it was the CNT and FAI men on the CCAM who were best prepared and offered the most to the magnificent work of consolidating Catalonia’s freedom and independence. They were indefatigable; true slaves to work. After them, it was those from the Esquerra, the Rabassaires, the Republcan Union, the POUM, and finally, last among all in terms of their contribution, militants from the Workers’ General Union (UGT) and the Unified Socialist Party.

Durruti, Aurelio Fernández, Asens, Santillán, Marcos Alcón, and I represented the CNT-FAI on the CCAM; Miratvilles, Aiguader, Solá, and Tarradellas were there on behalf of the Esquerra; Torrents spoke for the Rabassaires; Fábregas for the Republican Union; Gorkín, Rovira, Gironella for the POUM; Del Barrio, Vidiella, Miret, García, Durán y Rosell (etc) represented the UGT and Socialists.

There were three very important and completely loyal military men on the CCAM; the Guarner brothers and Colonel Giménez de la Verasa. The first two were well-qualified to organize and lead the armed forces being created; the latter specialized in artillery and arms production. The CCAM began making weapons under the guidance of CNT men like Vallejo and Martín, who have done a tremendous job at rapidly transforming our metal and chemical industries into centers for making armaments, which today are vital to the war and the revolution and will be vital to the future of Catalan industry once the conflict ends.

The CCAM mandated the construction of a network of fortifications throughout Catalonia, which safeguard our freedoms and the security of our fronts. Thus far, the enemy has not attacked them, preferring instead to assault areas inadvertently left defenseless.

The CCAM also organized the internal security forces that permitted the speedy construction of a new revolutionary order. Aurelio Fernández and Asens from the CNT-FAI; Fábregas from the Republican Union, and González from the UGT worked tirelessly on this. Miratvilles put together the Propaganda Section with unrivaled skill.

Tarradellas applied his formidable will to arms production. Torrents, from the Rabassaires, patiently procured military supplies. Durán y Rosell and Marcos Alcón coordinated transportation. Santillán, Severino Campos, and Sanz organized militias that took off for the front. I was General Secretary of the War Department, the nerve center of this entire splendid enterprise.

Meanwhile, under the direction of the CCAM, Ortiz, Durruti, Jover, Del Bario, and Rovira re-took villages and lands in Aragón that had been subjected to fascist slavery, never losing a kilometer, always advancing the war for liberation and thus, in this way, placing our fields, factories, and homes beyond the reach of devastation and death.

Catalonia had a tremendous institution in the Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias and through it achieved unanticipated prominence. It affirmed, in a way that has never been done before, that Catalonia truly deserves liberty.

The Dissolution of the CCAM

The prolongation of the war and its international repercussions; a committee that became the real government as it eclipsed and even annulled the Generalidad; these things compelled a very significant change in Catalan political and social life: the incorporation of the CNT into the government of the Generalidad. Objective? To continue the great work of the CCAM from within the government.

We can consider the impact of the CCAM’s dissolution on Catalonia when we have won the war that we are waging against international fascism. Today I would simply like to recall—and it is unfortunate that a record of it was not made—the short speech that I gave at the CCAM meeting at which we decided to terminate the body. Those who were present know that there was a bitter note running throughout my comments, which was inspired by a concern for the future, one that was already threatening to be defined by discord within the anti-fascist family and, should it continue, will likely prevent us from being victorious in our battle against fascism and will ensure that a great Catalonia and a Spain admired throughout the world will never be created.

[Translated to English by Chuck Morse]