manufacturing dissent

I remember reading The Communist Manifesto when I was young. Perhaps too young, since I had an instant knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat.” I wrestled with that for a while, since, otherwise, I was thrilled with the ideas I found there. I began to study more generalized socialist writers and their philosophies, though most of them were pretty boring to me then (I was twelve). I finally came across some anarchist books and thought, “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! Revolutionary socialism without a dictatorship!” But, I was wrong, as some anarcho-syndicalists also proposed a brief, transitional “dictatorship of the workers.” And, there were the anarcho-communists. And the anarcho-individualists, and the anarcho-christians and anarcho-capitalists(?!?) There seemed to be a different form of anarchism for every occasion. This turned me away from anarchism for a good, long while. It seemed to me then that anarchists couldn’t agree on anything. But, after having to deal with various communist and other oddball socialists over the course of years of political activism, I finally embraced anarchism, with all its flaws and schisms because – as an anarchist – I didn’t have to tow a certain party line or endlessly bleat any leader’s words. And, as I came into contact with more and more anarchists, I found that most of us could agree to disagree on many issues but still find enough common ground to support one another’s activities and actions, whether or not we chose to directly participate in them. The important thing was to keep the pressure on – to work, educate, agitate for a better life.

In meeting and talking with other anarchists, I came to realize that some anarchist critiques of our society were taking on broader and still more divergent paths toward liberation, not only of society, but from society as well. I was – and still am – thrilled to be part of a movement which discusses and challenges the very roots of civilization to get to the root of oppression and permanently eradicate it from our existence. To this day, more and more rifts in the anarchist movement are making themselves apparent. Add to the above mentioned tendencies anarcho-pagans, anarcho-primitivists, anarcho-punks, eco-anarchists and you have a good listing of most of the major trends in current anarchist thought. The outsider might look at this situation and think, “Wow, how fortunate to be part of a movement with such diverse ways of approaching its concerns.” Sadly, the truth is that for over a century now, there have been serious splits in the anarchist community – particularly in America – which prevent us from unifying our efforts and presenting a solid challenge to the existing order. The syndicalists accuse the individualists of being elitist, the anarcho-communists accuse the primitivists of being unrealistic, the individualists accuse the syndicalists of fetishizing the working class. And, as if that is not enough dissension within the anarchist ranks, there is a current war of words raging between the so-called social-anarchists – the libertarian/municipalists – and their dreaded opposition, the mythical “lifestyle anarchists.” I say “mythical” because there is not now, nor has there ever been, any group or philosophy which has called itself “lifestylist.” Then what’s the fuss all about? No one can say for sure, but now that there are essays flying and lines being drawn, there is the possibility that an “unbridgeable chasm” is being built – indeed, manufactured – within the anarchist community. This could signal the birth of a stronger, livelier brand of 21st century anarchism as the last residual adherents of 19th century anarchist ideology slips into the past, or the squabbling may continue until anarchists find themselves marginalized and irrelevant in the struggle against global capitalism.

Old Traditions don’t die…

Though the individualist anarchists have always held separate views about how someone who desires freedom in their lives should act upon these urges, there have been two streams of anarchist thought which were fundamentally incompatible with them: anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-socialism (which is really more of a result in trusting leaders – even within the anarchist movement – than a well-thought-out doctrine). The individualists are less interested in mass organization than in doing what they can immediately to liberate themselves. individualists have tended to form communities, free schools, free clinics and work with poor people, partly because they were in contact with the unemployed more than the workers, partly because they chose to join the ranks the unemployed themselves. The individualists were primarily the ones throwing bombs, robbing banks, assassinating leaders. The anarcho-socialists were usually reformed anarchists who found their way back into civic life, either as lawyers, academics, government bureaucrats, or in other positions of accommodation to the state, in return for a cushy life. Whenever communist revolutions successfully seized state power, the anarcho-socialists were usually the last ones persecuted, since they posed the least threat to the existing social order.

What the more socialist-minded anarchists shared with the Syndicalists was a process of revolution, where, through education and preparation, the working class would be brought to a level of readiness wherein they would then simply walk in and take everything over – no muss, no fuss. The syndicalist leadership usually thought that the time was not yet right for revolution and that more groundwork needed to be done, so the revolution was seen as some distant goal, to be achieved in the vagueness of “tomorrow.”

In places where the three major anarchist philosophies were seen as equally important, there was a strong, militant anarchist presence throughout the society. In places where the differences were highlighted and factionalism kept the anarchists from joining together, they tended to take a back seat to the mainstream socialists or the communists.

In both revolutionary Mexico and Russia, the syndicalists at times united with the communists, or even the government, in order to further their allegedly revolutionary causes. Often in exchange for promises – later broken – of greater freedom to organize the workers, or for weapons. The split in Russia was characterized by the socialist (or minimalist) anarchists and the revolutionary (or maximalist) anarchists. Insulting broadsheets were printed up on both sides. The bolsheviks played up the differences and had the anarchists so divided that they were unable to challenge the Communist Party’s power over the working class. The syndicalists even gave material aid to the Communists to help them subdue the peasants, who were overwhelmingly on the side of the of the anarchist militias in their regions. Likewise in Mexico, where the syndicalists took up arms against the revolutionary armies of Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata in order to protect the state from the peasants, who were revolting – particularly in the eyes of the syndicalists.

In revolutionary Spain, the leadership of the syndicalists were in position to take over the Republic, but chose instead to preserve the state in a coalition with the Democratic, Communist and Socialist parties, much to the chagrin of the rank-and-file workers, who ignored the dictates of their professed leadership and proceeded to valiantly demonstrate to the world that true revolutionary change was possible in the industrial age by abolishing money, seizing the means of production, transportation and communication and redistributing the land to the peasants who worked it. In the end, the Republican forces, led by the communists, crushed the anarchist revolution, while the syndicalist leadership watched in horror or bemused disinterest (“We told them not to take over the factories!”).

The lessons to be learned from the past are obvious: for a truly Libertarian society to emerge, it will take a great deal of effort, along a broad front by all Anarchists. (And that communists are back-stabbing lackeys of the bourgeois.) In the Cold War era, anarchism became more of a philosophy than a living movement. But, during the turbulent era of the ’60’s and ’70’s, particularly with the emergence of the punk scene, anarchist ideas were once again being brought up and taught, written about and argued over, particularly with communists, who – to this day – believe that what anarchists really need is a little leadership (theirs, of course) to steer them in the right direction.

Since the end of the cold war (told you so, told you so!), it is now only the anarchists who stand in opposition to the might of the capitalist nation/state. Yet, even as (Einstein said) the human race has not evolved along with it’s technology, the anarchist critique is entering whole new fields of discourse in the argument against coercion and the roots of power in society. This should be cause for excitement in the anarchist community. Instead, it is causing a war of words and given birth to a sort of reactionary anarcho-orthodoxy that has no place in a movement which has as its ultimate goal the freedom of everyone to be, do and think what they please.

This Libertarian Municipality Ain’t Big Enough…

There are two defining moments in the current rift in the anarchist scene: the Love and Rage split in ’93, and the publication of Murray Bookchin’s Social Anarchism versus Lifestyle Anarchism; an Unbridgeable Chasm, in ‘95.

Love and Rage was born from the nucleus of a trotskyist group who decided to give anarchism a chance (a chance to follow their leadership) and form a nation-wide network of Anarchist groups under one glorious organization. The problem with L&R was, they kept attracting pesky anarchists to their party, people who had their own ideas, thoughts, priorities and principles and refused to follow party dictates! In the 1993 national meeting, there were several proposals debated, most of which had the effect of centralizing the organization in the two cities where – surprise! – the founders of the organization lived! It was a fairly transparent powerplay by the central committee which had the effect of causing half the L&R members present to leave the organization. Love and Rage went into a downward spiral from there and is no longer active, the trotskyists having left the anarchist movement with no leadership.

And, speaking of dead guys, Murray “time’s running out” Bookchin’s book (SA/LA)is nothing short of bizarre. In it, he blames many of the woes of mall and consumer society at the feet of “lifestyle” anarchists. Among the people he tags as having influenced this disturbing trend are Josef Stalin and Adolf Hilter, as well as Hakim Bey, Max Stiner, and long-time anarchist publications The Fifth Estate andAnarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed. This is one of those books that has to be seen to be believed, in which a career academic takes issue with working people for wanting to be liberated from their roles as workers.

Not only are lifestyle anarchists counter-revolutionary petty-bougieous, Bookchin rants, but they also seem to think that they are capable of making decisions for themselves, not only about how to create revolutionary change, but also just what needs to be rebelled against. Bookchin places the blame for everything from restaurants to mall boutiques on these shadowy lifestylists, who seem to be intent on not following the dictates of old men who understand much better than lifestylists do about how to achieve genuine anarchy. (Bookchin’s major contribution to anarchist theory is his concept of libertarian municipalities, which, as Bob Black pointed out in Anarchy…, isn’t even anarchist!)

One has to wonder just what the point is to Bookchin’s diatribe. But, any anarchist who’s read his major works (The Ecology of Freedom, and Remaking Society, to name two) could well understand why Bookchin is lashing out so. His books are utter failures. If he had limited himself to examining the causes of ecological ruin, these books could have become important material in the dissident genre, much the way Noam Chomsky’s books are in the fields of international relations and the secret dealings of so-called “democracies.” But Bookchin didn’t stop there, he wanted to also point out that there could be a better world, if only people would take charge of their local economies and run those nuclear power plants themselves (as non-profits, no doubt). It is here that Bookchin falls flat, in his clinging to 19th-century notions of “progress.” He utterly fails to comprehend that the horrors of ecological ruin that he describes in one chapter are caused by the technology he praises in a later one. His faith in technology is frightening. Even early 19th century anarchist novelist Mary Shelley understood the possible consequences of unrestrained technology and its effects on the people using it, the people it is used upon and the society surrounding them. Long after many of the world’s leading intellects had abandoned this trust in progress, Bookchin still sings it’s praises. And he apparently believes that he is mentally tough enough to beat anyone down who dares challenge his anarchist orthodoxy.

In the aftermath of his possibly senile ranting, Bookchin has been savaged by the presses and people he lumped in with Hilter and Stalin. Bob Black in particular has been writing essay after essay, refuting Bookchin’s “factual” reasoning and tearing apart his arguments. Quite humorously, Black has often used Bookchin’s very own words to refute much of what Bookchin has to say at this late stage of his life. Way back in the ’70’s, Bookchin, then quite new to anarchist thought, contributed some very good essays that still resonate to the society of today: “Post-Scarcity Anarchism”; “Listen, Marxist”; and his incredibly detailed account of the anarchist movement in Spain, The Spanish Anarchists…

Murray, Murray…what happened, bud? The answer that pops up over and over is that Bookchin became a sort of anarchist Stylite, isolated in his Ivory tower, surrounded by adoring disciples and locked away from trouble-makers and non-believers. Now, approaching the end of a life of alleged struggle against the powers of the state, Bookchin must take on any challengers, beat down the unfaithful and banish the heretics. He’ll be gone soon, so he has to make these last few years count, show everyone that he can still get it up, dialectically speaking. It’s sad, really.

Bootlickers and Heirs-apparent

But perhaps the strangest part of this whole saga is that now, in the East Coast Academic anarchist circles, there are people beginning to jockey for position as Bookchin’s heir. Perhaps the Institute for Social Ecology (Bookchin’s Ivory Tower in Vermont) is well-endowed enough to attract suitors. Just recently, in the magazine Left Green Perspectives, Michael D. Weiss has written a denunciation of post-modernism. One has to wonder where he’s been since the early ’70’s, when all the rest of us picked up on this trend.

Weiss calls the trend Terror Culture and uses as examples tattoo and piercing parlors. Another abhoration Weiss points out is that these cultural terrorists READ BOOKS! Not only that, but some of them publish and write books by other cultural TERRORISTS! AIIIEEEEEEEEE!

Some of the books he criticizes are laughable for their complete banality ( which, of course, is their point), such asAssassination Rhapsody published by that heinous bastion of terrorism, Semiotext(e)! This book is nothing but the complete findings of the Warren Commission on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, by those shining lights of post-modernist chic, the United States Congress.Semiotext(e) has also published books by such terrorists as Felix Guatari, Toni Negri, Giles Deleuze and Jean Bauldriard. They’ve also done the unpardonable sin of publishing books about such taboo subjects as underground music, cult films, body piercing and tattooing. This is all too much for Weiss, who one must imagine shaking his head, muttering, “What’s with kids these days, with that rock and roll music and the drinking and the cigarettes…”

He should get out of the house more often.

Youth Culture Killed My Dog!

This whole, sordid turn of events would be completely irrelevant if not for one thing: youth culture.

The incredible upsurge of interest in Anarchist theories and practices which accompanied both the radicalism of the ‘60’s and the punk phenomena of the 70’s was mostly centered around youth, who tend to question the values handed down to them from the previous generation. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the most part, but there are some problems which are inherent in youth movements. The most obvious problem is that the youth get older and are pressured to compromise with the society which they once questioned, if not (temporarily) rejected. Their energy gets taken up more and more by the responsibilities of the workworld and family, leaving little time or room for dissident discourse. Too often, the earlier, radical period of their life is later perceived as a “phase” the person outgrew. Instead of developing their radical beliefs, the formerly young activist too often lets them die from neglect.

The other, more frightening aspect of youth culture is that the young radicals, unless they were fortunate enough to have been raised in a radical household, often come suddenly into radical politics due to circumstances which quickly draw them into a whirlwind of new experiences. What’s wrong with that? Well, when the activity dies down – the campaign is over, the event passed – the more thoughtful activists begin to study their radical roots. After getting up to speed with the birth and growth of these movements, the young (college student?) activists begin to look to bring their knowledge up-to-date, to find current groups and people continuing in the radical milieu. Which, for the anarchists, will at some time lead to the works of Murray Bookchin and the social ecologists/libertarian municipalists.

It takes a lot of mental strength to develop a radical perspective, but it often takes quite a while to become familiar enough with different revolutionary and radical philosophies and organizations to be able to make critical inquiries into their theories, structures and practices. And if the young radical is gullible enough to fall for the “Well, join our (party, organization), and you can help shape it” line, that person could wind up wasting years of their lives futilely pursuing comrade-and/or-leader-ship before burning out and dropping out. For some former radicals, this will give them such a negative impression of the activism of their youth that they then devote the rest of their lives combating their former comrades, and become conservatives (or worse).

So, when some beloved-and-respected comrade leader-guy starts slagging-off his rivals, the impressionable young mind may not take the time to examine whether the opposing faction(s) have any thoughts which might merit consideration. It may not even occur to the young activist that much of Bookchin’s opposition exists only in his mind. There is, after all, no evil organization called SPECTRE, no boogy-man, no monster under the bed. Nor is there a spectre haunting the Anarchist world, a spectre called Lifestyle Anarchism, which threatens to undermine the lifelong achievements of Murray Bookchin.

At last, one is left with the impression that this is perhaps the real, final death-rattle of the 19th century socialist movement. Legal (Revolution by the ballot) socialist revolutions were crushed by the U.S. and it’s allies throughout the century. Armed revolutionary movements which succeeded in taking over states proved to be unable to manage state economies and retain absolute political power. And the anarchists…well, the old guard, the boosters of proletariat power, must have seen the writing on the wall. If seizing control of the factories comes second to taking control of one’s life away from the mechanizations of production, then what’s a labor organizer to do? What if you held a worker’s council and the workers all quit their jobs? Unable to adapt to a world where the traditional values of progressivist rationalism are no longer meaningful, the Old School anarchists decided that it wasn’t themselves who were out of touch, but everyone who disagreed with them! No matter how long the list of intellects on the other side, no matter how few the adherents to their anarchist orthodoxy, Bookchin and his bootlickers are unable to grasp the fact that they have lost touch with the working class who they once idolized. Their own words don’t even penetrate their ideological armor – they enter the new millennium desperately clinging to previous centuries of idealism. After having rejected the 20th century philosophical findings in the post-modern and post-structuralist fields of inquiry, they have retreated to the crypt of Enlightenment.

As for me, I embrace the future and look forward to the new intellectual territory which will be mapped out by the next wave of Anarchist critique.

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