An Anarchist Communist Strategy for Rural, Southern Appalachia

Class antagonism takes a multiplicity of forms: Environmental struggles can also pit the impoverished against the profiteers. In the mountains of Appalachia, anger against Mountaintop Removal coal mining overshadows labor struggles, or even the war in Iraq, as the single issue that most arouses the passions of the common folk.

An Anarchist Communist Strategy for Rural, Southern Appalachia

by Randy Lowens - Capital Terminus Collective (Alanta, GA)

Class antagonism takes a multiplicity of forms: Environmental struggles can also pit the impoverished against the profiteers. In the mountains of Appalachia, anger against Mountaintop Removal coal mining overshadows labor struggles, or even the war in Iraq, as the single issue that most arouses the passions of the common folk.

Class antagonism takes a multiplicity of forms: unionists on the picket line; youths burning draft cards, railing against the exemptions of the privileged; neighborhoods demanding a voice in local development. Environmental struggles can also pit the impoverished against the profiteers. In the mountains of Appalachia, anger against Mountaintop Removal coal mining overshadows labor struggles, or even the war in Iraq, as the single issue that most arouses the passions of the common folk.

In the following article, I will

1. argue that opposition to Mountaintop Removal is the foremost expression of class struggle in Southern Appalachia,

2. briefly describe the landscape of the movement against Mountaintop Removal, and finally

3. construct an analogy between the historical strategy of bringing a revolutionary perspective into mass organizations, and doing so in the particulars of the given place and time, Southern Appalachia in the early 21st century.

Resistance to Mountaintop Removal as Class Struggle

First, what exactly is Mountaintop Removal coal mining? Mountaintop Removal (MTR) refers to the practice of employing explosives to blast the tops off of mountains in order to reveal the veins of coal underneath. The practice costs less than traditional mining techniques and, not coincidentally, provides fewer jobs for the surrounding communities. (What labor is employed is often imported, contributing to the exodus of impoverished locals from the land, in the process making more acreage available for MTR). In contrast to community struggles against more traditional forms of strip mining in decades past, the few, specialized number of workers required to set a charge and then bulldoze the debris back into place, robs the pro mining camp of a favorite argument, that support for mining is "pro jobs", and any opposition to it, implicitly anti-worker. [1]

For the revolutionary who seeks opportunities to intervene in the class struggle in rural Appalachia, few options present themselves. One could pine for the heyday of militant miner struggles, and attempt to resurrect them. One could resolve to start from scratch, and attempt to organize the local coffee shop barista's or other retail workers. Or one might appeal to the self interest of the locals, and patiently explain that inhabitants of the rural byways should oppose capitalist war, at least as fervently as do members of the urban enclaves. But, for good or ill and for all practical purposes, these struggles are not currently taking place. For the anarchist communist whose strategy is, not to create and then lead mass struggles, but rather to participate in and bring a libertarian, revolutionary sensibility to existing struggles, resistance to Mountaintop Removal is not merely a wise strategic choice, but practically the only game in town.

With a few notable exceptions (such as a pair of recent Latino farm worker victories in Florida and North Carolina), labor struggles in the rural South (including Appalachia) follow the national trend, declining in frequency and militancy. And whereas resentment towards the rich man's war in Iraq has the potential to serve as a flashpoint for class struggle elsewhere (and should certainly not be categorically dismissed anywhere), still, rural Appalachians tend towards a certain xenophobia, that limits the potential effectiveness of using the war to exploit the class divide. Only the hatred of Mountaintop Removal mining sparks an immediate fire in the eyes of locals down to the corner store, while simultaneously presenting a stark contrast between the interests of the wealthy (mostly absentee) corporate titans, and residents who grew up farming, hiking, hunting, and fishing the endangered mountaintops and nearby, similarly threatened bottoms and streams. Only Mountaintop Removal serves to immediately, passionately, unite the community against the oppressors.

The Current State of Resistance

Resistance to MTR generally take one of two forms, that may be categorized according to either tactics or ideology: the liberal community groups who prioritize fundraising and government lobbying, and the champions of direct action within Earth First!, who operate under the influence of Deep Ecology and primitivism. Though neither approach should be summarily dismissed, both offer obvious weaknesses. Ideologically, what the two spheres share is a certain conservatism, a desire to return to a former, presumably better state of existence, the liberals harking back to the ideals of the USA's Founding Fathers, the primitivists reaching considerably further back into the mists of history in their quest for a mythical Eden. What both schools of thought lack is a coherent vision of how to go forward, given the current morass. At any rate, let is look closer at each type of grouping.

The former probably bears little description, being the typical reformist groups that adhere to the ideals of liberal democracy, ranging from the huge, impotent Sierra Club down to a plethora of similar, but smaller organizations. Such groups are typically organized and dominated by middle class liberals, and prioritize fundraising and lobbying; but their membership (and also a large number of nonaligned, but sympathetic community members) includes a wide swath of the working class. (The very quantity of such organizations may bode well for the possibility of penetration by anti-hierarchical voices, implying as it does a decentralized, community oriented structure.)

At a glance, the latter type groups, the Earth First! groupings, might appear closest to the ideals of the historical anarchist project, championing as they do "direct action" in lieu of reformist strategies. (I do not refer to direct action in the classical syndicalist sense of strikes, boycotts, and sabotage, but instead militant actions taken by community members to halt construction projects, often in the form of chaining oneself to a piece of equipment. By way of full disclosure, the author of this article spent the better part of two years intimately involved in just such a group, and continues to count several such activists among his personal friends.)

Within these circles, the influence of primitivist thought ranges from conscious, self-described adherents of primitivist ideology, to latent, knee jerk reactions against anything that smacks of a technological development. (I was once privy to a hilarious discussion, in which someone argued passionately against constructing an e-mail list on technological grounds, offering in its stead… a phone tree!) The temptation is to dismiss such groups as primitivists, and thereby hostile to the principles of anarchism. The leaders and members of these groups, however, insist that primitivism is a form of anarchism. However vehemently an anarchist communist may disagree with this formulation, the fact remains that they, themselves, consider it true. As a result, many admirable traits and habits typical of anarchist collectives adhere to them, including earnest efforts to organize in a non-hierarchal fashion, and taking a respectful attitude towards local working class communities (about which more will be said).

Surprisingly, in my experience the differences in ideology between the prevailing sentiments of primitivism and Deep Ecology as opposed to a class struggle perspective, presented few immediate impediments to successful cooperation. Adherents of both schools of thought threw themselves wholeheartedly into producing and distributing literature within the community detailing the perils of MTR, organizing protests outside the local TVA office towers, and eventually planning and attempting the disruption of a mining site.

(The latter operation I only learned of after the fact, though I did not disapprove. Also, while this article focuses on MTR, our group was simultaneously opposing the construction of a proposed superstore, to be built on a wetland. There too, a combination of literature distribution, visible demonstrations, and direct action work stoppages was employed. Though involved in both campaigns, I was more deeply and directly involved in the campaign to stop the store. So to an extent, some of my conclusions are extrapolations from the superstore campaign, applied to the campaign against MTR).

Over time it became apparent to me, that our direct action scenarios were not building links with the community at large. This, in spite of the fact that a surprising degree of cooperation existed between the militants and reformists. The leadership of the two groups actually worked in close coordination, employing something of a good protestor, bad protestor strategy, playing on the authorities fears of widespread vandalism on the one hand, while offering a moderate voice to negotiate with, on the other. The strategy, though not wildly successful, may have been sound, given the circumstances. Ultimately however, I came to the conclusion that the use of dramatic lockdowns only served to widen, rather than narrow, the gap between the anti-authoritarian pole of the movement, and the mainstream environmentalists (as represented by the rank and file of the reformist community groups.) The image of the no holds barred, militant warrior, though arguably tactically useful, and certainly an image in which an activist might glory- I was guilty of such myself- became, I am convinced, ultimately alienating to the very folks whose timidity and passivity we lamented.

Paralleling theory to tactics, it is worth noting that the divide I refer to, that might be described as the distance between the "freaks" and "square" society, between the activist subculture and the citizenry, is celebrated somewhat on the pages of the more intelligent primitivist literature such as Fifth Estate magazine. (I can't comment on other primitivist publications, as I long ago stopped reading them). This dichotomy between the masses and the activists appears to be a conscious choice. [2]

Still, again, there is much to like in the functioning of the Earth First! groups. The Mountain Justice Summer campaign, an Earth First! led initiative, draws inspiration from the west coast's Redwood Summer (which in turn was inspired by yesteryear's Freedom Summer). It has proven to be an impressive organizational effort that has brought many of the various community groups opposing MTR together under a common umbrella to present a united front against the coal bosses. Furthermore, the campaign was launched with a "listening project", essentially canvassing door to door to learn directly from community members how they are affected by MTR, or how they fear they might in the future be affected. Finally, the Earth First! people, being activists coming in from outside the community, volunteered to forgo property destruction as a tactic (while refusing to condemn any community members who choose to do such. Even so, certain reformist groups disassociated themselves from the Justice Summer effort. [3] ) Such a respectful approach to working class communities is sorely lacking in political circles of all stripes.

So it would be a mistake to dismiss wholesale the work of these folks, on ideological grounds. Nevertheless, the fact that Earth First! activists work in cooperation with the community groups- but ultimately outside of them- separates their efforts from an anarchist communist approach. The content of the membership of the reformist community groups, makes them a more attractive terrain for the anarchist communist revolutionary. The community groups opposing MTR are the nearest thing in existence to the workers organized against capital, within modern, rural, Southern Appalachia. Defying the control of these groups by liberals (who defend the interests of a relatively privileged strata of the middle class) is the front line in the Appalachian class war.

At this juncture we can only speculate regarding the ways in which a community organization controlled by the local working class might differ from the status quo. Certainly the more impoverished residents, without the last resort option of selling some capital and relocating to another area, could be expected to be more militant and ultimately, more radical, in their opposition to Mountaintop Removal coal mining.

A Strategy for Rural, Southern Appalachian Anarchists

I have described, in brief and to the best of my ability, the activist and social landscape of Southern Appalachia. I have argued that Mountaintop Removal mining, though perhaps not the ideal terrain for taking on the bosses- the lack of any leverage at the point of production is notably lacking- is, nevertheless, the best, perhaps the only option for a revolutionary anarchist seeking to intervene in the class struggle. During the previous century Malatesta argued that revolutionaries, rather than attempting to build the perfect union before inviting workers to join, should instead take their efforts inside the existing workers organizations. In a similar fashion, community organizations opposing MTR are where the workers of Southern Appalachia may be found, congregating in gymnasiums, schools, and yes, Baptist churches, to mount a united defense against the bosses of the coal mining corporations. These fellow workers are in dire need of a revolutionary voice countering the middle class, liberal orthodoxy, reminding that such rearguard actions as the struggle against MTR will remain an ongoing necessity, until the administration of the community's affairs is at last assumed by the community itself.

The job is enormous, the obstacles may appear overwhelming, and our numbers are likely miniscule, but this is the task before us. May this little article serve as an invitation to fellow class oriented anarchists around the region who labor fruitlessly in other struggles- or perhaps who are currently active in opposing Mountaintop Removal coal mining, but in isolation from fellow class struggle anarchists- to establish contact, set some common long-term goals, identify the immediate chores, and set to work. We have nothing to lose but our chains, and our homes in the mountains to regain.

Written for

[1]- The AF of Ireland interviews a Wobbly in Appalachia:

[2]- The most recent (Fall, 2006) issue of Fifth Estate includes at least two extensive treatments of Beat literature, examining the naturist poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snider, and also Alan Ginsburg of Howl fame. A case could be made for Beat writer Charles Bukowski as a poet for the masses, but I will leave that topic for another day, and another author.

[3]- The website of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition contains a discussion regarding this controversy