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On Anarchist Debate

category international | anarchist movement | opinion / analysis author Friday February 06, 2009 17:40author by Kevin S. Report this post to the editors

The prevalence of (ultra-)sectarian and petty-argumentative attitudes, leading to a lack of constructive debate, is doing irreversible damage to the anarchist movement. A basic problem here is the extreme difficulty of consolidating fragments of serious anarchist thought and activity, in a context permeated and distorted by bourgeois ideology...

On Anarchist Debate

Anarchism is a simmering influence in social struggles, which in recent times has put itself back “on the map” as a serious international movement with the upheaval in Greece and, to a lesser extent, the protests at the Republican National Convention (although the latter mostly led to negative perceptions from the U.S. public—nonetheless it made some impression and provoked a “surge” in organizing). Unfortunately, the incoherence and disorganization of so much of the anarchist “scene,” internationally and in the United States, remains a massive obstruction to serious activity. Some significant steps are being made toward a more coherent movement, emphasizing popular struggles and involvement at a mass level. However, the prevalence of (ultra-)sectarian and petty-argumentative attitudes, leading to a lack of constructive debate, is doing irreversible damage to the anarchist movement. A basic problem here is the extreme difficulty of consolidating fragments of serious anarchist thought and activity, in a context permeated and distorted by bourgeois ideology.

This is not a simple issue of a few “personalities” derailing all the other anarchists’ efforts through confusion. It affects every level of anarchist discourse in ways that are not reducible to a small “chaotic element” (although such an element undoubtedly plays a big part). A common perception from outside the “scene” is that confusion and sectarianism come naturally to anarchists because anarchism itself is ideologically confused and sectarian. Of course, ironically more than a few of those making such an argument (e.g. Marxists, Trotskyists, etc. …) are themselves ultra-sectarian, and talk of “unification” from them usually means subordination. The deep and complex problems confronting anarchism cannot be understood from outside—they can only be understood and confronted from a real anarchist perspective. While we should not discard valuable contributions from any direction, it should never be forgotten that we are anarchists and that should never be subordinated or made secondary to more “pragmatic” considerations as long as means of resistance remain at our disposal.

It is important to make a distinction between theoretical and practical disagreements. But again, that is no simple issue as practical differences are nearly always framed in theoretical terms, often obscuring concrete similarities or exaggerating differences unnecessarily. This is also not helped by considerable theoretical differences within this or that tendency, to the extent that debating with one person might lead to entirely different perceptions than it would with another from the same “camp.” The lack of programmatic thinking together with the scattered, isolated situation of so many anarchists is primarily responsible for such confusion, although there are other factors common to all groupings (individual “spinning” of ideas, theoretical nuances, etc. etc.). A more long-term issue is simply the volume and variety of writings all identified as anarchist, frequently conflicting with each other in their content.

Of course, individuals must pick and choose valuable ideas while leaving out worthless ones. However, that does not negate the central importance of ongoing debate to sharpen or improve on ideas. The key point in all of this is criticality, as in the individual’s ability to self-criticize and to criticize others at a practical and theoretical level through study, debate, action and reflection. But criticism in that sense should be serious and thoughtful. Controversy has its value in stirring up debate and pointing out problems, but then debate should be constructive and not petty if anything is to be gained from it. Not to say criticism should be “softened” one bit to avoid “offending” its recipient, but even harsh criticism can be constructive if it is serious and pointed at real problems and not simply for sectarian or petty-personal reasons.

Consider one example that stands out. There is an ongoing argument between “insurrectionary” anarchists and “Platform” organizational anarchists. Both are part of revolutionary social and class-struggle anarchism, although there are some “post-leftist” insurrectional groupings that tend to denounce class-struggle or communist anarchists as disguised or “recovering” Marxists. Being personally heavily influenced by elements of both insurrectional and “Platform” thinking, it is an interesting but frustrating debate, not least because it nearly always bogs down into sectarian name-calling and personal “digs” missing the real point.

For insurrectionists, there is a problem with “neo-Platformists” attempting to “Bolshevize” anarchism, identifying it with Leninism. Between accusatory labels, there are serious criticisms of bureaucratization and a sort of “wait for the masses” mentality that runs through “Platform” thinking, which can sometimes interfere with action. In contrast, platformists point to anarchist isolation due incoherence and disorganization, arguing for a common line of action and theory to have a consistent presence in struggles. That is usually accompanied by talk about a “chaotic element” responsible for anarchists’ disorganization, many times pointing at insurrectional-types as a primary culprit.

Some of those are serious points that need debating. Unfortunately, serious debate is obstructed writing-off a huge fraction of revolutionary anarchists through labeling as “neo-Platform Leninists” or simplistically faulting insurrectionalism for alienating anarchism. There is a lot value in both “traditions” that it is simply stupid to dismiss. Anarchism will only improve through serious debate, not useless sectarian labeling. A writer like Bonanno is as important as any platformist writers, maybe even someone like Makhno.

The point is, sectarian attitudes are a hamper to serious debate. By extension, sectarianism is an obstacle to serious improvement of anarchist theory and practice. At a moment, as now, when anarchism is a bubbling influence on social upheavals, it is more important than ever for us to be critical. But it is also more important than ever for us to debate constructively if anarchism is to be a serious influence. Too much criticism directed inward is self-destructive and alienating. Comradely criticism, pointed at real failings, is necessary for moving “forward”—even if it is harsh criticism. Anarchist denunciations of other anarchists, without constructive content, only destroy what little “movement” there is. The most important thing now is to improve anarchism through debate and action.

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author by Jan Makandalpublication date Fri Feb 06, 2009 18:49author address author phone Report this post to the editors

To Kevin
Some of the point you raised in your article Anarchist Debate I, somewhat, recently responded to in the thread Independent response to the LRP. I do believe the problem of unity and what I call political rapprochement need to be address. Not only among Anarchist but also among all of us that recognizes the historical role the working class needs to play to bury capital. The question of proletarian alternative needs to be address and resolve now.
The fundamental element of that debate is the battlefield.

author by José Antonio Gutiérrez D.publication date Fri Feb 06, 2009 19:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I think Kevin your text is much necessary and relevant.... there's a number of issues I already addressed in another article, originally published in Spanish, which is called "La importancia de la crítica en el desarrollo del movimiento revolucionario" ("on the importance of criticism in the development of the revolutionary movement" ). This article was written as a response to two attitudes which I feel have damaged and hindered the development of anarchism: whether it is the ultra-sectarian attitude of the comrades which see as "renegades" and "heretics" everyone who dares disagree with their simplistic and dogmatic view of the world, or whether it is the "happy family" mentality of those that reject to discuss because according to them all theories or sets of ideas are equally valid (regardless of their coherence or their approach to reality), these two attitudes towards debate have really hindered the development of the anarchist movement for a while. As a result, our movement has been largely condemned whether to suffer from a lack of solid thought, or to being nothing but a dogmatic sect of rabid fanatics.

But over the last while, anarchism as you well point out, has had the ability to play an important role in the new wave of popular and revolutionary movements. Our ranks are swelling and an awful lot of activity and prospects are to be found. Yet, inherited practices remain and prove to be a heavy burden for the movement to really take off. One of them is the inability to discuss among comrades in constructive terms, a much necessary habit we need to get used to if we ever want to be a serious alternative that challenges the current system.

I identify, as with you, a number of problematic issues:

1. That most discussion remains highly abstract (I would not even say "theoretical"). As you say, debate and action should go hand in hand. Or as Jack Mackandal puts it in a more elegant way, the decisive element on the debate is the battlefield. I often find that discussing with comrades who do not refer at all to reality or to any form of practice leads to a dead-end. Debate needs to come back every time to practical experience. Reality, unfortunately, is absent in many anarchist discussions (or leftist discussions for that matter).

2. That we do not tend to discuss: whether we shun debate or we "denounce". Denouncing is not discussing. In the Spanish movement, particularly, the dogmatic zeal of some comrades have lead to huge rows were each "party" tries to prove who is the real anarchist and who is the one who has gone "astray". This tendency makes anarchism look more like a religious sect than a political movement.

3. Another problem is the way some comrades are keen to label others in a way that obscures the debate instead of helping to clairfy it (as you mention, Leninists, Reformists, Hippies, etc.). This labels, there's no need to insist, have no meaning whatsoever and are, if anything, nothing but insults with no explanatory capacity.

4. The way in which comrades are keen to see political differences not as legitimate disagreements, but turning others into "enemies"... the lack to identiy who the real enemies are lead the zealots to purge the uncomfortable elements in their ranks instead of spending that time and energy against the true class oppressor. (This leads to a further problem, that we do not know how to build alliances with the rest of the left, which we hail uncritically or we dismissed altogether).

5. Criticism needs to be constructive, but most of the time we discuss to "win" the argument. That is irrelevant. You can win as many arguments as you want and reality will not change because of that. Debate should be used, as Berneri points out, to clarify issues, not to win it over. In the process of debating and defending ones ideas we clarify issues and learn (as our recent discussion on Gaza proved). And if you do not change your opinions, at least you sharpen and strengthen your arguments. When we debate, we need to understand that "truth" do not lie in my or your arguments: we are highlighting aspects of a complex reality and we need to have a better grasp of it.

6. This as a whole require a maturation of the movement as such...

Jaysus, I will try to find time to translate that article into English as I believe it is complementary to some of the ideas you expose here.

Well done, a much needed contribution. Thanks for taking your time to put it together!

author by reallysubsumed - multitudepublication date Sat Feb 07, 2009 02:59author email reallysubsumed at riseup dot entauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thanks for the shout out to the RNC organizing. I just wanted to mention that although there has been some negative press and many of our comrades face very serious charges (see one of the best things at the local level to have come out of this is the really great level of solidarity across the relative left. The St. Paul Principles (respect for diversity of tactics, separation of diverse actions in space or time, no working with cops, keep arguments internal to the movement) have held to a great degree. Local progressives, greens, commies, anti-war folks etc have all refused to participate in the 'Bad violent anarchists' game that the state has pulled, often at considerable vulnerability to their own movements. At a recent community meeting about a hundred folks came out to hear anarchists, socialists, and progressive allies speak about how to help the RNC 8, fight back against democrats in city government who have made crushing those to their Left the goal of their electoral campaigns, and build on the solidarities that we forged in the streets and in the nearly two years of organizing that preceded the convention. I think that this event has been helpful in bridging some Red/Green divides in the Twin Cities and encouraging pan-Left dialogue and cooperation that is defying the de-escalation that the Obama camp has hoped for. The value of actually working together as a way to build understanding, rather than arguing to convert others seems to have been on display here in MN.

solidarity, comrades.


author by akai - ZSPpublication date Sat Feb 07, 2009 05:36author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I see many valid points in both the text and the comments but will add a thought or two for discussion.

Yes, some debate definitely can go into the wrong direction if there are not specific comments, but also when people are against debate, for whatever reason. Sometimes folks with the "happy family" ideology see this as a potential upsetting experience, sometimes people who are afraid of their authority being undermined also react rather strongly and inappropriately. But there is another problem.

In the course of debate, sometimes words are used which first, mean different things to different people, and second, serve more to denote disapproval than to communicate a constructive criticism. Often, once started down that road, things simply snowball, as it is unusual to counter insults. perceived or real, in any other way than with counterpunches.

A quite good example of this was with the slew of criticism against "lifestyle anarchists" with followed Bookchin's pamphlet - many of which did nothing much to convince people, but served rather to reinforce people's one perceptions and mobilize like-minded people. Since this time, people use a lot of labels which are not too-clearly defined or understood by many.... even though many of the readers here will no doubt feel this is an obvious label.

In this text and comments we also hear another label "sectarian" or "ultra-sectarian" which is poorly defined and mean completely different things to people. But to everybody it seems to mean something negative, a fighting word in fact. The great irony of it is that, as far as I know, this word is most often used by self-described "ecumenical anarchists", or "synthesists", or ones with hodge-podge ideas (or whatever it can be called) .... for platformists. Or for anybody who, in trying to create a more clear anarchist train of thought, might offer criticism of certain trends or currents of anarchism. As a matter of fact, I think that it is so easy to misuse or misunderstand the meaning of the word, that it's counterproductive to even use it , or at least without a text on the topic.

I think that if any "insurrectionalist" is reading this, they would react quite defensively to the word, which would then not really achieve the aim that you expressed.

author by Kevin S.publication date Sun Feb 08, 2009 02:02author address author phone Report this post to the editors


I agree with most of what you say. For sure, there are plenty "happy family" type who are against debate and prefer a kind of mish-mash of everyone's way of thinking, so that there is no coherence and one is led to question what the point of it is in the first place. These people suffer from a lack of critical thinking. In present times, however, I mostly encounter these types in some vague "leftist" groupings other than anarchists. Being not at all a "synthesist," even so I do not think that "synthesist" ideas (except for some caricatured versions) can be quite boiled down to such a starry-eyed attitude.

There are also those, as you say, who are afraid their authority being undermined -- this being the case with some "synthesists" (stubbornly clinging to useless ideas as "valid"), but more ordinarily they are (pseudo-)Leninist bureaucratic types. Sometimes it these this sort who starts up labeling other viewpoints, as an effective both to discredit those viewpoints and to distract the argument from hard-hitting critique of any viewpoints -- very effective for maintaining the status quo. This is an extremely common practice in certain (not all) Marxist circles, and also as you mentioned it was used against the Platform as way to alienate its supporters and keep the "scene" more-or-less as it had been.

You are, of course, right in saying "sectarian" and "ultra-sectarian" are vaguely defined, like so many words. What I referred to was a "sectarian attitude" obstructign serious debate. Take the last example above, for instance. The practice of labeling and denouncing in order to avoid serious debate in the movement -- that is a harmful sectarian attitude. There is not a sort of "guidebook" on when a thing is sectarian and when it isn't, and "sectarian" itself should not be used as another label for denouncing this or that group (as it often is). So, for instance, I made the example of insurrectionary anarchists versus platformists, where I have seen accusations of sectarianism and a slew of other things (Bolshevism, "insurrectional jerks" etc. etc.) thrown up on both ends. To me, it obscures the real debate and has anarchism eating itself.

Now, I do not think a critique of "sectarianism" should mean everyone joins into one big organization (be it "synthesis" or "Platform"), which would create a lot of big problems and achieve very little if anything. But anarchist *debate* is necessary for improving ideas, coming to agreement or uncovering disagreement, and developing an effective line of action. Sectarian attitudes, whether leading to no discussion at all or to simple denunciations lacking serious critical content, are a danger that one has to be aware of. But it also can't be turned in paranoid Stalin-esque way into some invisible enemy being detected everywhere (effectively shutting down criticism or debate).

Side note ... on the "insurrectionalist" label, I don't know if someone would take issue with that, but certainly "insurrectionary anarchists" (a longer term which I also used) call themselves such and this substantially no different from "insurrectional" or "insurrectionist." Besides which, I specifically used the word "insurrectionalism" in reference to platformist arguments, which nearly always use that term. I don't see what the issue could be, especially sinces I clearly stated I myself am heavily influenced by some insurrectionary thought (e.g. Bonanno).

author by Liam Sionnach - The Institute for Experimental Freedompublication date Wed Feb 18, 2009 16:27author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I appreciate the gesture and would hope others would find it both caring and seductive. Critique is so limited by paternal forms of power, often evading thresholds and the potentially pleasurable experience of locating friendship and enmity. Debate can produce such spaces, but is practiced, as you said to win, and which we might say is not simply for the fight, or in another case the chance to commensurate.

Kevin, you mention the terms "insurrectional, insurrectionary, and insurrectionist" as terms with the same meaning and translation. Although, some may use them in this way, I believe such people miss the point of an insurrectional practice. I cannot speak for Bonanno, or Wolfi, but I will say, that the similarities between their thought and that of Walter Benjamin on the topic of "the state of exception" and "pure means"; the thoughts of Debord on the concepts "detournement" and the contemporary, Giorgio Agamben's contributions to the mentioned and to his own refinement of detournement with "profanation" is no mere coincidence. Insurrectional anarchist practice (or methodology) is neither ideologically anarchist nor simply concerned with "the insurrection", but it does make rupture its fetish object, or should we say "situation." Perhaps the English translators silence on the topic, and the loud "post-leftists" did some a disservice by refusing to see any nexus between post-structuralist, communist, and anarchist thought and that of those who might like to riot more than usual, but the similarities and the practical applications cannot be denied. Insurrectional discourse has among its qualities a non-teleological, almost post-Heideggerian notion of time and event, it is an ontological anarchy--an almost "way of being-anarchy", but more recently insurrectional discourse in the US and in Europe is being refined through Deluzian notions of "becoming," and the influence of the French texts "call" and "the insurrection to come," among others. It practices a "becoming-anarchy" through making the civil-war of global capital into social war, a partisan-war, that does not concern its self with a dead messiah (as hope for revolution) nor morn the dead messiah (as post-workerism), but simply forgets in practice as an interruption of the linear continuum of history.

There's a lot of theoretical baggage that I unfortunately am skipping over that may interest you, but the above is good place to start if you want it like I want it and like a lot of insurrectional comrades want it. The first part of having a conversation is sharing a language and like history, we are in language because we are doing language (and I am only communicating the potentiality of communicability). Sorry about the opacity, its how it is for me.

-Liam Sionnach

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