Revolutionary anarchism in Latin America and the lessons for South Africa
anarchist movement |
Friday June 24, 2005 20:57 by Michael Schmidt - ZACF
Reports from S. American groups and conferences by a South African anarchist
The most crucial issue facing the global anarchist movement today is not only how to win the battle for the leadership of ideas among the anti-capitalist movement, but how to ensure that direct action, mutual aid, collective decision-making, horizontal networks, and other principles of anarchist organising become the living practices of the social movements. We will examine the examples of Latin American anarchist organisations to see how they ensured what they call "social insertion" - that they as militants and revolutionaries are at the heart of the social struggles and not mere (cheer-)leaders in the margins.
Fire-ants and flower
Revolutionary anarchism in Latin America and the lessons
for South Africa
THE SOCIAL QUESTION
The most crucial issue facing the global anarchist movement today
is not only how to win the battle for the leadership of ideas among
the anti-capitalist movement, but how to ensure that direct action,
mutual aid, collective decision-making, horizontal networks, and
other principles of anarchist organising become the living practices
of the social movements. We will examine the examples of Latin
American anarchist organisations to see how they ensured what they
call "social insertion" - that they as militants and revolutionaries
are at the heart of the social struggles and not mere (cheer-)leaders
in the margins.
This is a core question not only because it demands a definition
of the role of the revolutionary organisation, but also because it
focuses on how revolutionary anarchists define their relationship
with non-anarchist forces originating in the struggles of the working
class, peasantry and the poor.
To put it another way, the key is how we approach the oppressed
classes and how we contribute towards the advancement of their
autonomy from political opportunism, towards the strengthening of
their libertarian instincts and towards their revolutionary advance.
Globally, the working class has changed dramatically since 1917,
an international revolutionary high-water mark, when South African
anarcho-syndicalists (anarchist unionists) of all "races" like Thomas
Thibedi, Bernard Sigamoney, Fred Pienaar and Andrew Dunbar founded
the first black, coloured and Indian trade unions in South Africa.
Today, trade unions, the old "shock battalions" of the working class
are decimated, compromised or bogged down in red tape. The
once-militant affiliates of Cosatu have been silenced, restructured,
bought off with investment deals and enslaved to their "patriotic"
duty to support the ANC elite.
The inevitable resistance to the ruling class' neo-liberal war on
the poor has provoked resistance. But although the new phase of
struggle began with the SA Municipal Workers Union fighting a water
privatisation pilot project in Nelspruit, it swiftly moved beyond the
Today, most observers agree that together, the progressive United
Social Movements (Landless People's Movement and Social Movements
Indaba) embrace about 200,000 supporters - compared to the SACP's
16,000 seldom-mobilised membership.
Which is why the regional anarchist movement, in founding the
Zabalaza Anarchist Communist Federation on May Day 2003, has oriented
itself towards anarcho-communism that goes beyond the factory gates.
Anarcho-communism has its ideological origins in the Pan-European
Revolt of 1848 and the writings of house-painter Joseph Dejacque, who
opposed the authoritarian communism of his contemporary Karl Marx.
But it only really became a genuine mass working class movement
within the First International. Essentially, it is the practice of
social revolution from below rather than political socialist
revolution from above, and it calls for a movement located in the
heart of working class society.
Of course there are conservative, right wing and even
proto-fascist forces within the majority-black oppressed classes,
which hobble their ability to challenge the elite. Which is why
anarchists, autonomists and other anti-authoritarian socialists are
directly involved in the progressive social movements.
ANARCHIST DAYS 2: BRAZIL
Since the dark period of opposition to apartheid in the 1980s, the
southern African anarchist movement has, because of language
barriers, largely drawn inspiration from the North American and
Western European movements and far less from our comrades in the rest
of Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, Austral-Oceania and Latin America.
But social, economic and political conditions in the global North are
very different to those in the South and our orientation has
consequently shifted southwards.
Countries like Brazil not only suffer US imperialism, but also act
as regional policemen towards less powerful neighbouring states. This
is similar to South Africa's subservient position to British
imperialist interests, and its role as regional enforcer: remember
the 1998 invasion of Lesotho to crush a pro-democratic mutiny?
Other similarities between SA and Brazil are that both countries
have recently come out from long periods of military dictatorship
(Brazil's ended in 1985), both have militant social movements (the
MST landless movement in Brazil for example, which has occupied some
2-million hectares) and both now have left-talking, right-acting
governments (the Workers' Party came to power in Brazil in 2002) that
push anti-working class neo-liberalism.
Which is why I was sent as a delegate of the Bikisha Media
Collective (BMC) - a founder organisation of the Anti-Privatisation
Forum (APF) and a member collective of the Zabalaza Anarchist
Communist Federation (ZACF) - to the Anarchist Days 2 congresses in
Porto Alegre in Brazil in January 2003. Run in parallel to the mostly
reformist and authoritarian-socialist World Social Forum 3, the event
was a follow-up to the first Anarchist Days meeting organised in 2002
by the Gaucha Anarchist Federation (FAG) of the southern Brazilian
state of Rio Grande do Sul, the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU)
and Libertarian Struggle (LL), an anarchist collective based in the
city of São Paulo that has since transformed itself into the
Insurrectional Anarchist Federation (FAI). The first Anarchist Days
was a truly international event, with participation from the hosts,
plus 15 autonomous organisations of the base from across Brazil, the
Central Workers Organisation (SAC) of Sweden, the Anarchist Communist
Unity Congress (CUAC) of Chile, Anti-Capitalist Struggle Convergence
(CLAC) of Canada, the Libertarian Socialist Organisation (OSL) of
Switzerland, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) of the
The follow-up was more of a Latin American continental affair,
with delegates from the hosts, 22 Brazilian autonomous social
organisations of the base, Black Flag (BN, Chile), Tinku Youth (TJ,
Bolivia), the Workers' General Confederation (CGT, Spain) and myself.
Considering that Brazil is the size of the USA excluding Alaska, with
Africa-like difficulties in communication and travel, the Brazilian
representation was itself a coup for the organisers. Other groups
present, but not as delegates, were the ex-Workers Solidarity
Alliance (ex-IWA, United States), the Central Workers Organisation
(SAC, Sweden), and the No Pasaran Network (RNP, France).
The events comprised two mass marches of social movements through
Porto Alegre, the second one being a demo against the Free Trade
Agreement of the Americas (FTAA, the Latin American version of
NEPAD); two public workshops on revolutionary anarchism at the
Workers' Museum (a similar facility to the Workers Library &
Museum in Johannesburg); a meeting of the Brazil-wide Forum on
Organised Anarchism (FOA); a meeting of International Libertarian
Solidarity (ILS) affiliates (including BMC); and the First Meeting of
Autonomous Latin-American Organisations of the Base (ELAOPA)
BRAZILIAN & ARGENTINE ANARCHISTS & THE SOCIAL
The FAG of Brazil was founded in 1995 with the help and
inspiration of the FAU of Uruguay. Since 2002, the FAG and other
"specific" anarchist movements from Brazil such as the Cabocla
Anarchist Federation (FAC) of the Amazon have worked together in the
Forum on Organised Anarchism. In Latin countries, "specific"
anarchist organisations adhere to the lessons of the "Organisational
Platform of the Libertarian Communists" (drawn up by veteran
Ukrainian guerrillas in 1927): federalism, tactical and ideological
unity, and collective responsibility, principles that the ZACF is
also based on.
On the ground, the FAG mobilises among the garbage-collectors
(catadores), pushes for the opening of universities to the poor,
networks together a number of autonomous "Popular Resistance
Committees" in working class communities and works with the
Independent Media Centre and with community radio stations. Its
position regarding the social movements, in its "FAG Declaration of
Principles", is that "[o]n the political-ideological level, political
groups including the FAG, should enhance the social and popular
movements, to make them more militant, without trying to make them
'anarchist'. The social movement should not have a political
ideology, but its role should be to unite, and not to belong to a
political party. In the social movements, it is possible to unite
militants and build a unified base, which is not possible at an
The FAG then takes its non-sectarian stance further: "Because we
know that we are not going to make the revolution by ourselves, we
need to be aware that we need to unite with other political forces
without losing our identity. This identity is the anarchist
organisation and is the avenue by which we want to build unity with
other political forces in the social movement."
Through the FAG's policy of "social weaving", it reunites
community organisations of the oppressed classes, whether unions,
soccer clubs, community radio stations or neighbourhood associations.
"This way we try to form a solidarity group between all the
organisations in the community, increasing strength mutually in
direction of the struggle."
In Argentina, a country with a proud tradition of mass anarchist
organising (and anarchist trade union dominance) in the first three
decades of the last century, neo-liberal policies pushed through by
the International Monetary Fund and World Bank provoked the collapse
of what was once one of the strongest Latin American economies. This
lead to a popular uprising in 2001 that saw five state presidents
ousted in rapid succession, the occupation of factories and the
establishment of Popular Autoconvened Assemblies across the country.
Auca (Rebel), an Argentine anarchist organisation based in the
city of La Plata to the south-east of the capital Buenos Aires, was
founded in 1998. Having deeply involved itself in the United Popular
Movement (MUP), Auca takes a similar position to the FAG on what in
Latin America is termed "social insertion": "Our organisation is not
the only one inside the popular organisations that is struggling for
revolutionary change, and surely in the future it will also not be
the only one. Historical examples have shown us that different
political models of the working class and the people have converged
in the different revolutionary processes throughout history...
"Within revolutionary efforts, it should be understood that the
model of the Single Revolutionary Party is exhausted. It has
demonstrated its lack of flexibility against the different political
manifestations of our class.
"As anarchists, we believe that our proposal embodies the true
interests of the proletariat, and it is in anarchy where we find the
final goal of human aspirations, but we are aware that the comrades
of other organisations believe the same thing regarding their
FOR A FRONT OF OPPRESSED CLASSES
Auca's position is that they "are not rejecting the imperative
need for the unity of revolutionary forces under a strategic project.
Rather, we believe that the main body for the gathering together of
popular power is the Front of Oppressed Classes where syndicalist,
social and political models which, in general, struggle for
revolutionary change will converge.
"It is there, in the heart of the FOC, where a healthy debate of
political tendencies and positions should be engaged in, so that the
course the FOC takes is representative of the existing correlation of
popular forces. The FOC should not become a struggle of apparatuses."
Calling the FOC "a strategic tool", Auca states: "Obtaining a
victory over a more powerful opponent is only possible by tensing all
the forces and obligatorily applying them with meticulous wisdom and
ability against the smallest 'crack' amongst the enemies, and in all
contradictions of interests amongst the bourgeoisie of the different
countries, between the different bourgeois factions and groups inside
each country. It is necessary to take advantage of the smallest
possibilities to obtain an ally of masses, even when they are
temporary, hesitant, unstable and uncertain.
"The backbone of the Front of Oppressed Classes is based on the
(strategic) alliance of the peasant workforce where the majority and
leading force is the proletariat..."
The concept of a Front of Oppressed Classes as an idea is totally
different to the authoritarian communist concept of a Popular Front,
which communist parties around the world have used as a Trojan horse
means of first welding together popular opposition into a
hierarchical umbrella organisation, then inserting themselves into
the leadership of the organisation.
This is what happened with the organisations within the United
Democratic Front (UDF) during the final struggle against apartheid,
which suddenly found themselves being dominated by a grafted-on
ANC-SACP "leadership", even though UDF members were drawn from a
variety of political traditions. Their final fate was the
illegitimate and unilateral disbanding of the UDF by the ANC-SACP
after the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990, and the
subsequent bloody political ascendancy of the conservative
nationalist agenda over the very community and workplace structures
that had defeated apartheid in the first place.
Instead, the Front that Auca supports is a revival of the proud,
militant traditions of progressive and radical class organisations,
wiser this time and divorced from opportunistic political parties,
being focused instead on working class autonomy and self-management.
Only a horizontally linked, community co-ordinated network of class
organisations is diverse enough and resilient enough to not only bear
the assaults of the neo-liberal elites, but launch its own raids on
the bases of capital.
A truly egalitarian FOC with every active member equally empowered
with the ability to make policy decisions at a collective level is a
very tough organism because it has no centre for reactionaries to
destroy or for opportunists to seize.
This, and not the tried-and-failed approach of trying to hammer
the United Social Movements in South Africa into some kind of shabby
and marginal "Workers Party" (a contradition in terms) that will
pathetically try to contest bourgeois power within the halls of
bourgeois power itself. Instead, the FOC would establish an
increasingly strong "dual-power" situation to first undermine the
authority of bourgeois power, and then assume many of its functions,
devolved to community level (as we did in the 1980s with popular
civics, for instance).
SOCIALIST "GOVERNMENT" FROM BELOW
Auca's position statement goes on to state that the creation of
revolutionary change means achieving precisely this type of popular
power: "We will call the tool that allows us to make an initial bid
for power the Government from Below. This will basically consist of
directly building power through solid criteria of unity and strategic
"To guarantee the efficiency of this, it is crucial to increase
grassroots participation, focusing the different sectors around
specific programmatical questions. This tool will be set up and
consolidated through three organisational stages that will gradually
go forward and overlap one another."
Auca's three-stage approach is:
1) a greater co-ordination of popular organisations around a
consolidated joint plan of struggle, based on joint class interests;
2) the regionalisation of the struggle so that municipalities can be
controlled at grassroots level and so that joint demands can be drawn
up at regional plenaries and be presented to bourgeois power;
3) consolidate regional grassroots power, not through elections, but
by a dual-power "Government from Below".
Auca state that "we are not in a revolutionary situation" -
although Argentina is closer to it than South Africa - "but are
rather creating the foundations of socialism and that the Government
from Below will operate within the general framework of the bourgeois
The general idea would be to use dual-power to train the class to
assume both the running of collapsed social services at local level
and to counter-act state repression of the social movements. The ZACF
may well adopt a similar strategic approach, with its township food
gardens and community libraries - and its Anti-Repression Network,
Auca states its aims as "giving more power of decision to the
grassroots groups that are born in the heat of the struggles, and are
the current incipient bodies of dual-power - mainly the popular
organisations with territorial power and popular assemblies. The
democracy will be structured starting from a new approach that
involves the shape of political representation.
"After economic exploitation, this point is the second in
importance in relation to the struggles that are currently going on.
We must break definitively with bi-partisanship, but also, and
fundamentally, we must give shape to the development of a new form of
DIRECT AND POPULAR democracy [capitals in the original text].
"This means that decisions will no longer pass through the hands
of a few enlightened politicians, but rather through the hands of all
the people struggling in the streets. It is essential to struggle for
a federalist character of democracy that means that the decisions
that affect the social body are made by one and all, through an
operation that expresses the thought of the social base of the
country. Guiding this practice will be one of the maximum
requirements of the Government from Below, a first taste of the
society in which this is the official organisational approach."
FIGHTING DIFFERENTLY TO ACHIEVE DIFFERENT ENDS
The CIPO-RFM of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which
borders on Chiapas, was founded in 1997. Today it is an organisation
of about 1,000 indigenous American members, named after Mexican
revolutionary anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon and now boasting its own
radio station. Where the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in
Chiapas used arms, initially, to create space for social dialogue,
CIPO-RFM is an unarmed movement. Instead it relies on innovative
non-violent tactics that have proven successful even though they face
state-backed death-squad attacks on their members. Importantly, these
tactics have allowed the CIPO-RFM to make nonsense of the state's
claims that they are a dangerous or terrorist faction.
One of the tactics is that when they are confronted with riot
police on horseback, instead of pelting the cops with stones, they
throw bags of tiny ants at the horses. The ants have a vicious fiery
bite and drive the horses wild, sowing confusion in police ranks and
defeating attempts to suppress the organisation.
Another tactic involves moving entire communities that have been
cut off from their neighbours by police / army roadblocks through the
roadblocks peacefully. The women approach the cops and soldiers armed
with flowers that they present to their oppressors. Delighted,
embarrassed and confused, the armed forces allow the flower-givers
and their children to pass them by, trailing men from the community
in their wake.
Of course the state forces learn and adapt to these fire-ants
& flowers tactics, but the point is that non-violent tactics have
achieved far more than a frontal armed attack ever would - and it
builds up a grudging respect for the anarchist forces among foot
soldiers and cops who are largely drawn from very similar social
backgrounds to those they are forced to go up against.
A fundamental anarchist ethic is that "means are
ends-in-the-making", which is to say that the means that we as
revolutionaries adopt in our struggles at all levels and in all
phases will directly determine the nature and quality of the lives we
build for ourselves and our class. It stands to reason that one
cannot repress in order to create freedom or resort to terror in
order to lift the clouds of fear off our horizons.
Probably the best expression during the Anarchist Days 2 meetings
of how anarchists should engage with the social movements was given
by CIPO-RFM delegate Raul Gattica, who said that that anarchists "do
not come like an illuminating god" to the social movements, but
rather as comrades who live humbly alongside and within the
movements, assisting the autonomy of the movements to the best of
This non-vanguardist, non-sectarian attitude will be the ZACF's
guiding principle in relating to our own social movements.
POST-SCRIPT: ILS MEETING
At Porto Alegre, there was also a meeting of the International
Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) network of which most ZACF groups are
members. The ILS was established in Madrid in 2001 to link the
largest and most active sectors of the global anarchist movement
The meeting was attended by ILS delegates from BMC, FAG, FAU, LL,
LEL, CIPO-RFM and CGT, with delegates from BN, the ex-WSA and BN as
observers (Auca was accepted into the ILS in February). The meeting
felt that the lack of presence of the Libertarian Mutual Aid Network
(RLAM) of Spain, the OSL of Switzerland, Libertarian Alternative (AL,
France/Belgium), RNP and the Libertarian Communist Organisation (OCL,
France) - together with the then up-coming ILS meeting prior to the
G8 $ummit in Evian, France, in June 2003 - meant the meeting should
be brief. As a result, all organisations present simply gave a
description of the challenges facing them, particularly in terms of
money and resources.
Of interest to Africans was the presentation by LEL, which
operates within the favellas (squatter camps) of Rio de Janeiro, in
conditions of grinding poverty and gangsterism - not dissimilar to
the conditions ZACF members know in the townships of Johannesburg,
Durban and Cape Town - yet which has built community meeting centres
and a vibrant press.
- Michael Schmidt (ZACF)
First published in
Journal of Southern African Revolutionary Anarchism #5
- May 2004