What does it mean to be an anarchist communist?

What does it mean to be an anarchist communist?
by prole cat

(The following essay was composed for the inaugural issue of THE DAWN, an anarchist newspaper published out of Oakland, California.)

In setting out to answer the above question, I do not plan to provide a definition. That is to say, I do not plan to explore the theory or history of anarchist communism. I will assume the reader is already familiar with the basic tenets of the anarchist communist tradition (and for those who are not, Peter Kropotkin’s pamphlet Anarchist Communism is a good place to start.)

Rather, I intend to answer the question from the perspective of what being an anarchist communist means personally, how such a political identification affects employment prospects, personal relationships, and activism.

Libertarian socialists on the jobsite

As an anarchist communist, the one thing that I cannot in good conscience be, is a boss. As one who is committed in opposition to the class rule of capitalism, I can not have employees. While such a commitment might seem innocuous enough at a glance, let us look deeper. To resolve never to be a boss means essentially to forswear financial ambition for the duration of one’s life. Because let’s face it, folks, how else is a person going to make “good money”, if not thru managing the labor of others?

Perhaps one might seek to amass wealth without becoming a boss, by studying hard and becoming a skilled laborer? Certainly, skilled labor fetches more on the market than mere brute force. Not only that, it is often true that experienced skilled laborers earn more than the lowest echelons of the managers, the “floor supervisors.” But the experienced skilled laborer has hit a glass ceiling. The experienced laborer is earning as much as he or she is going to, except for the occasional cost of living increase, and ignoring such factors as collective bargaining. The experienced skilled laborer has no where left to go, no means to advancement except moving up into a management position.

For all practical purposes to be an anarchist communist, one who stands in firm opposition to the boss system, is to forswear all ambition for “a career.”

We could hardly discuss the ethical aspects of employment without addressing the subject of unions. Anarchist struggle means conflict between rulers and the oppressed, and that includes the struggles of workers with their employers. Without question, ALL anarchist communists hold that collective action on the part of the workers, and in opposition to the bosses is the fundamental basis of our politics. Beyond that point, we are anything but monolithic. Many go so far as to say that an anarchist who is not involved in union struggles, is anarchist in name only. Others counter that given the hierarchal structure of the union bureaucracy, belonging to a union (or most particularly working for one) rather than being a prerequisite of anarchism, actually disqualifies a person.

Most of our views fall somewhere between these extremes. Accordingly, most anarchist communists who are in a position to join the rank and file of a union, do so. Often we accept elected positions as stewards. If there is a democratic reform caucus within a union, anarchist communists will often be found laboring there. And some go so far as to accept employment as union organizers.

Wherever one falls in the spectrum, few dispute the claim that most unions are at odds with anarchist principles, to the extent that they are run in a hierarchal fashion, from the top down. To whatever extent a union has wealthy bosses and “mere workers” within its structure, it stands at direct odds with anarchist communism.

For my own part, I spent 25 years as a wage slave in the machine shops and factories of the rural southern United States, and never once worked in a union shop. It was through working in non-union shops, eating scraps from the bosses table, walking to the job site so that the owner could afford to buy a brand-new four-wheel-drive pickup truck… it was through long years of deprivation that I came to believe that union organization could only help. But more than that, I came to believe that only a revolution would entirely suffice.

Anarchists in the home

What of personal relations? Is the personal life of an anarchist communist affected as drastically as her employment prospects? Perhaps less, perhaps more so.

Anarchists oppose domination in all forms, including the domination of the one’s mate or child. In other words, Dad doesn’t “wear the pants” in an anarchist home. Nor does the “breadwinner’ (assuming a single-job family) merit special status. Quite often division of labor is rejected in favor of rotating tasks, but in no case is “a man’s home his castle.” (OK, I think I’ve run out of patriarchal clichés, here.)

A home that is established along anarchist lines eschews domination and competition, and opts instead for autonomy and cooperation. If you don’t find this to be a novel approach to familial relations, then you didn’t grow up in my family, or one like it.

Anarchists as activists

Not all anarchists are “activists”, at least by the usual definition of the word. Some anarchist communists are so convinced that class struggle is paramount, and that the union is the most promising form of that struggle, that such fights constitute the full extent of their political activity. They devote themselves exclusively to agitating for more radial and militant strategies and tactics within the unions. But for many others, political activism within the context of the broader social movements are a vital part of the battle against capitalism.

What do we mean by “the social movements”? This generic term refers to such organizations and tendencies as the anti-war coalitions, the various environmental organizations, and the global justice movement. Anarchists are well represented in all of these spheres. It may be that what distinguishes the activism of someone with a particular ideology is less what causes she may champion- most would agree that all the above-mentioned causes are worthwhile- but in what order of priority they are placed.

Perhaps an example will serve to illuminate this point. Suppose a person shows up for anti-war marches, is a member of a union, and goes to the local Earth First informationals. Further, suppose that the same person devotes a huge amount of time and energy not just to attending demonstrations for global justice, but also for organizing and propagandizing against the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. We would say that this person supports many causes, but prioritizes global justice issues.

A critical question for any anarchist activist is, what will be the first priority as an activist? Will she seek to bring a class analysis into the (generally liberal) anti-war movement? Or will she devote herself exclusively to labor issues? If so, will that be in the context of the union form of struggle, in community organizations such as copwatch, or via another form? And what of the environmental movement? Is it possible to bring a class analysis into that arena?

How an activist answers these questions says much about her politics.

I will close these remarks by briefly detailing my own answers to these questions. I chose to make a priority of working on the Farm Labor Organizing Committee’s (FLOC’s) boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company. The reason I selected this campaign is that, first, it employs a direct-action means of struggle, the boycott. It is a campaign in support of a union struggle, and the union is not a wealthy one with a large bureaucratic structure. Further, this struggle combines the issues of class, race, globalization and nationalism (the workers that FLOC represents are overwhelmingly working class Latino non-citizens.)

Rather than attempting to finesse the issue of their being “illegal”, I confront it directly: “What, only American citizens have the right to a decent life? Slavery in the fields is OK, as long as it’s not WHITE slavery, is that it? Do you think they want to be here? Do you think they just woke up one morning and said, ‘Hey, I bet it would be fun to move a thousand miles from home where everyone hates me and I can’t speak the language! That would be cool!’ These people are victims of NAFTA, same as we are, only worse…”

I selected the FLOC campaign because it combined so many different issues that I am passionate about. Working to support the exploited farm workers has been an enriching experience, and I plan to continue until the struggle is won. There is only one small problem, one nagging itch of discontent that keeps me looking for additional avenues of dissent and rebellion: it ain’t bringing the revolution down fast enough to suit me!