The Great Divide: Towards Bridging the Gap Between Anarchist- and Community-Based Organizing

This article is a few years old now but I still find its' message relevant to the tension between anarchist activism and day to day community organizing. Also check out: For Effective Organizing & Activism 2 Organizing

There seems to be a growing dichotomy between two spheres of organizing within the United States’ rather minimal population of radicals generally, and anarchists specifically. One we can call “anarchist-based” organizing, that which exists expressly for the building of a revolutionary movement around the tenets of anarchism, engaging in work and action explicitly to increase the influence of this set of beliefs. And another we can label as “community-based,” or a movement that is involved in grassroots efforts to address the specific needs of a community, which may or may not have a revolutionary goal and does not espouse a particular set of ideals. Of course there is much in between, and many who float between the two camps, but very generally we can look at these as two parallel (hopefully not opposing) tracks within the radical movement.

This dichotomy, or separation, is to me one of the weakest points for anarchists in the US. In many ways there seems to be almost no overlap between the two. Anarchist organizers often either devote themselves solely to non-anarchist organizing, seeing this as a way to work with non-anarchists, possibly introduce them to anarchism or its general principles, and support progressive organizing from the bottom up; or those who refuse to engage in non-anarchist organizing, declining to participate for a number of reasons such as viewing non-anarchist movements as reformist (which many times they are), not being affected by the issue at hand, or not identifying with those who are largely taking part (sometimes based on race, ethnicity, gender, language, class, etc., either consciously or subconsciously). When this separation exists, I believe the overall goal of forming a broad-based radical movement, capable of posing a real threat to the capitalist system and its consequences, is severely limited and both tracks will remain relatively stagnant in this ambition.

TOWARDS COMMUNITY

Recently I have been active in anarchist-based organizing both in the Bay Area and nationally through the Unconventional Action network that formed around the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. I suppose I am therefore what the mainstream media labeled a “self-described anarchist” during the coverage of the D/RNC mobilizations. This term is interesting because of the connotations it is meant to invoke within the general public as they hear the term “anarchist,” hoping to alienate our actions from the rest of the populace and write us off as “trouble-makers” instead of exploring our political motivations.

In many ways it is an unfortunate comment on the state of our movement in that they are so easily able to separate us from our communities by simply calling us what we are. Part of this, of course, is due to the fact that the word “anarchy” has taken a significant departure from its original meaning and has become synonymous with “chaos” or “disorder,” perpetuated by sensationalized media reports. While some are as a result more apt to use synonyms to avoid this confusion (such as “anti-authoritarian” or “libertarian communist,” etc.), the majority of anarchists still seem to “self-describe” as such, reflecting their commitment to the philosophy of anarchism and the desire to organize around its ideals. From here we then must recognize that as our identification may be problematic at times, if we want to move forward and expand our movement then we need to start dedicating a lot more effort in terms of educating others on our views as well as making ourselves accessible. How to do this will take a considerable amount of strategizing, which is a little of what I’m hoping to do here.

In St. Paul there were a number of general meetings where strategy and logistics were discussed. Looking around the room I felt two things: invigoration and disappointment. I most importantly felt excited that this many people from across the country with beliefs similar to mine were all in one room, plotting on how to disrupt one of the largest spectacles of this sham that is American Democracy. However, there was definitely a sense of discouragement at the same time as those in the room were overwhelmingly white, young, US-born, and predominantly male (I’m including myself in all of the above, of course). As the protests against the RNC have been painted as the largest anarchist mobilization in years (at least within the US), this is a big problem and a very clear demonstration that our organizing is not adequately addressing or engaging with those outside our movement. And most importantly it is not engaging those who are most affected by the system we are targeting.

This example of a flaw in our organizing is further illustrated by the ease with which the militant actions were isolated and demonized by the media and law enforcement. Much of that has to do with the direct results (or lack thereof) of our efforts. Many times, and in this case especially, what we aim to do in anarchist-based organizing is purely symbolic, seeking to target representations of state or corporate power. This is completely necessary in my opinion. However, at the same time, when we look at what is accomplished through this action, often times it is little more than propagandizing, seeking to interject our analysis into the mainstream consciousness through attention-grabbing actions. Mobilizations against these targets, such as the D/RNC, are less a vehicle for advancing revolutionary capability than ultimately a platform for our views, albeit ones that are invaluable in their scope and vitally important (I will delve into why a little later).

At times we are able to make significant impact on the functioning of these corrupt systems (the WTO being the most obvious example). But at the end of the day, the communities we have in heart and mind while carrying out these acts of anarchist organizing—whether they be a massive protest, small direct action, or even the production of anarchist writing (ahem…)—typically don’t see a positive change in their lives as a result. And, at least domestically, we typically don’t seem them involved in these actions either.

This is why community-based organizing is so necessary. In our cities, in our neighborhoods, a war is being fought everyday. Affordable housing is continuously under attack, especially here in the Bay Area, driving families out of our cities and causing homelessness to soar. Workers across the country are being assailed by anti-union corporations, driving them to compete against each other for the little they have. Immigrant communities are assaulted by ICE raids and reactionary legislation, while often facing massive exploitation due to documentation-status and racism. Struggles against all of this are happening right now and yet the majority of anarchists are not involved in the day-to-day fight. While still useful, we need to look beyond traditional action-based organizing, typically gearing up for one day or one week of a good fight, and focus as well on the long-term struggle happening everyday in our cities.

It is true that most of the organizations that have arisen to combat the problems mentioned above are imperfect. Many are blatantly reformist, seeking remedies within the existing system to cure their specific issues. Often times they fail to connect the dots between their primary concern and other social problems. Or they can be structured undemocratically, either by design or de facto. Yet at the same time they are often providing solid gains for the community, offering needed services such as childcare or legal assistance or even creating systemic change such as establishing rent control or winning universal healthcare, as we’ve seen here in San Francisco.

Because people can relate to these local struggles and become involved in an effort or campaign from which they can visibly see the affirmative effects within their communities, they are much more inclined to take part. Quite logically they will choose to invest their time in an organization whose goal is to concretely create a free health clinic rather than one who aims to vaguely “smash the state.” Our role as anarchists should be one of encouraging, developing, and participating in these local movements. By adding our participation we are then directly supporting models of self-organization and collective action.

In addition, we can interject our analysis and attempt to educate those we are working with side-by-side about our views and how they relate to the particular issue at hand. For example, say I have just become involved in a local struggle against a new housing development in my neighborhood that has no plans to create affordable housing and will bring in residents from a significantly higher income level, thereby continuing the process of gentrification. Not hard to believe, right? While I am working with others from the neighborhood it would also not be hard to believe that I would be having one-on-one conversations and hopefully building personal relationships with those I am interacting with. To continue, it’s further imaginable that during these conversations I would state my thoughts on how this particular problem is related to other issues and the overall system, stimulating discussion and hopefully making educational inroads through this shared dialogue.

We can also use our analysis to help encourage these movements to be as democratic and non-hierarchical as possible, resist enticements to compromise on their goals, limit (or eliminate) the focus on electoral politics and representatives in exchange for collective action, and push the envelope to make lasting changes rather than produce short-term solutions. It’s true, and must be restated, that lots of community organizing is flawed in relation to meeting the high standards of anarchist principles. But instead of writing these formations off and refusing to participate, we should look at the significant value that this type of organizing can have in regards to involving members of the community new to political work, uniting a group of people through collective action, and often times improving day-to-day living standards.

For us, we should think about our end goal. If we do in fact want to “smash the state” (something I’d like to accomplish one day), we of course need to build something in its place. These community-based efforts, while not explicitly revolutionary, are constructing this new society by providing these needed services in a manner contradictory to the capitalist paradigm. Whether it’s by establishing health services, improving or expanding shelter, feeding the hungry, etc., these are real measurements by which we can judge our success and our potential bit by bit. By investing our time in these grassroots movements we are moving forward in challenging the state’s role in our communities, addressing its deficiencies, and creating our own models of bottom-up infrastructure.

This process of interaction also introduces those coming from outside radical political circles or subcultures to real-life anarchists. Once a face is put on the “self-described anarchist” and crazy political theories of living without government are fully explained, showing the rationality behind the labels, suddenly it becomes that much more difficult for us to be removed and branded as “criminals” and “terrorists” as we were in Denver and St. Paul. By demonstrating our commitment to not only challenging and destroying this system of poverty, oppression, and violence, but also the construction of a new model based on community, we can connect with those outside of anarchism and form solidarity not easily divided by a police-issued press release. And hey, maybe they’ll even join us in the streets.

TOWARDS ANARCHY

While I feel the major deficiency in the anarchist movement is the lack of investment in community-based organizing, another trend I find troubling is the exact opposite: a lack of participation in the “self-described anarchist” movement. My writing here is to encourage a cross-participation for anarchists between the two spheres, and while in general I believe a lack of community relationships is our greatest deficit, concentrating solely on working with non-anarchists also limits our capacity to move forward towards our goal. After all, if we can’t work together and organize ourselves, how can we expect to draw new folks into our movement?

Anarchist organizing in the US has taken place on a variety of levels from relatively established local, regional, and national networks to rather numerous days of action against specific targets such as the anniversary of the War on Iraq or the recent party conventions. In general my views on the latter are mixed, as putting in so much time and energy into a one-day or one-week plan is both a drain on our resources and a sidetrack from our hopefully existent long-term organizing. Simultaneously, it’s an opportunity that should be taken advantage of for three big reasons: 1) it gives us a chance to pull ourselves from a range of movements and work directly with each other to accomplish a clearly defined goal, 2) if carried out well there is the ability to push our analysis and demands into the public sphere, and 3) there is always the possibility for actually disrupting the functioning of the system we oppose.

As I previously noted, one element that I found troubling from being in St. Paul was the general absence of generational diversity. I should say first that it’s awesome to see so many young folks (as I am one of them) involved in our movement. However, it left me asking, “Where are the generations that came before us?” Where were all those who were my age when the War started? Where were those who were in Seattle? Of course this is a general statement, as there were many older than myself involved in the protests, but not as many as I would have hoped. There are many answers to these questions but one that I know is true for some is that their focus is no longer on summits and mobilizations, or even for many on local days of action. This is because community organizing has taken precedent to the point of non-participation in what is determined to be strictly anarchist-based, sometimes simply because of time constraints created by other projects and others due to a lack of interest in this type of movement.

While clearly problematic at times, especially in terms of who participates in these large actions, their importance on a practical and theoretical level should not be minimized. By participating in the protests against the RNC I had the privilege of being introduced to individuals and groups who I never would have met. These contacts still exist and can be used in future organizing endeavors. In addition, I became a lot more familiar with local and distant friends and acquaintances through the process of organizing both prior to and during the mobilizations, thereby strengthening our organizational capacity and potential. My goals in taking on the RNC were not just related to shutting it down but equally included was my desire to participate in a nationally coordinated effort and the experience of working with others on our team.

On anther note, summits like the RNC are incredible in that they give us an opportunity to use the spectacle as a soapbox to espouse our own ideas in contrast to those of the media, business, and government. At the RNC there was a pretty sufficient media blackout, but at the same time there were sensationalized reports of “self-described anarchists” causing “mayhem and chaos” in the streets. Unfortunately in this case the media strategy of the organizers was rather flawed (the strategy was to not talk to the media), but at times still allowed room for some of our main points to get across. I am of the persuasion that for actions any news is good news, despite how bad they tried to portray us, so even the coverage in St. Paul was better than nothing (which is what they got in Denver). But with particular attention to messaging and forming media strategy these sorts of events offer us a priceless source of attention, one that is too valuable to ignore in terms of education.

Shifting gears, the organizational side of anarchism—either through loose networks and clusters of groups or actual organizations—has proven to be more of a challenge for anarchists. Many anarchists say they’ve had their experience attempting to form some sort of anarchist grouping and for a variety of reasons it has not endured, and so they now turn their attention elsewhere. Or more often the response is that organizing specifically around anarchism is just simply not their priority. Their energy is then put into causes they feel particularly close to, such as immigrant rights, labor organizing, war opposition, etc. This alternative is really great(!) in that it is far better than being apathetic, but at the same time often means a withdrawal from the larger anarchist movement, possibly a separation from others with similar motivations, and also maybe even a missed chance to bring other anarchists into community organizing (a sort of reverse of missing an opportunity to introduce new folks to anarchism as was laid out in the previous section).

The lack of focus on building an actual sustained anarchist movement in the US—somewhat differing from pooling resources and coming together occasionally for large mobilizations—is really preventing us from being as strong as we could be. Without organizations and networks working continuously on popular education and pushing our demands and visions into the public debate anarchism will remain a stagnant movement, unable to grow or produce substantial gains. At the same time our individual activism, no matter how meaningful it may be, will remain disconnected from other anarchists and our ultimate goal of a revolutionary transformation rather than solely establishing a broad-based movement will be put on the back-burner.

Lastly, it should be said that anarchism is most definitely a creative movement, however we also must be realistic in the sense that we have to work to dismantle the existing system. This can be done through coordinated and targeted mass actions—ideally organized through pre-existing networks that can easily come together to form strategy and act in unison—or through acting as an organization within a broader context, providing educational forums and engaging in discussion to tear down capitalist socialization. All of this must be done but will not happen unless we organize ourselves and look at new models on how to do so.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE

I’m obsessed with the Spanish Revolution, so please indulge me for a moment…

In Spain in the late 1920s and 1930s the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI) was formed alongside the already-existing National Confederation of Labor (CNT), a large anarcho-syndicalist union. The CNT at the time was a very radical labor union involved in insurrections, general strikes, and therefore subject to constant repression. The union was not only making significant inroads for workers but also involved in free schools, literacy campaigns, and other social services throughout Spain. Meanwhile anarchist militants involved within its ranks were frustrated with some of the bureaucracy within the union and critical of what they felt was its increasing role as a mediator between workers and bosses instead of purely an instrument of class struggle. In response the FAI was born, an organization of tightly-knit affinity groups that combined to struggle for militancy within and rank-and-file control of the CNT as well as fight for their strictly anarchist views—both in the union halls and in the streets.

This alliance of anarchists was not removed from the daily operations of the CNT and still functioned very much within it. They took part in labor actions (and especially insurrections), but at the same time realized that this broad labor union served a certain purpose and for the revolutionary ideals in which they fought for, there needed to be something else. Overall this model worked quite well, and when the time came in 1936 following Franco’s coup, it was the workers under the combined banner of the CNT-FAI that led the revolution in the name of anarchism.

Of course we are not quite in the same boat, but this is the sort of inspiration that I’m dwelling on while writing this article. Why is there not more of a crossover in our organizing today? What does attempting this crossing between anarchist and community organizing mean for our involvement in either section of the movement? What does it look like and how do we do it? The ultimate point of my writing is not to discourage individuals from participating in either anarchist-based or community-based organizing, or directing people towards one over the other, but instead to prioritize both.

As I outlined previously, community and anarchist organizing typically have two very different targets. At least recently anarchist organizations or networks have focused primarily on the macro—aiming to stop the war, disrupt the G8, crash the conventions, or, you know, end capitalism. Community organizing traditionally takes a more micro look, addressing specific problems affecting a population—fighting to shut down a neighborhood polluter, to stop police brutality and harassment, to organize workplaces, or to provide health services. We know that all of these issues are intrinsically linked and our organizing must consequently be connected in such a way as well. To be engaged in fighting the macro we need to be fighting the micro and vice versa.

Our organizing must compliment itself. Targeting systems and ideas is necessary to create an ultimate change in social relations capable of eliminating the inequities and injustices existing on a local level, but simultaneously we have to invest ourselves in solving those day-to-day problems and engaging with non-anarchist individuals. On the same note we should work concurrently with community organizations to help build up autonomous infrastructure and resist everyday attacks while maintaining our own larger assault on the overall system that perpetuates the war against our communities through engaging in anarchist education, agitation, and militancy.

There are other ways these two models can support one another. For instance if anarchist organizations or networks were developed they could become another ally to community struggle. Instead of solely working from within existing community organizations, community action can happen from within an organized anarchist group by offering services itself, supporting the actions and campaigns of other groups, or even acting as a partner with other groups on specific campaigns where common threads exist.

Further, if anarchists are involved in both anarchist-based and community-based organizing, they can encourage community groups to support anarchist organizing through whatever means may be available if the goals are mutual. This can be done by bolstering numbers at actions, expressing vocal support and solidarity, or through concrete means such as lending services—medics from a health collective or legal support from a legal aid organization, for instance. Anarchists working within the community can facilitate dialogue as to why this solidarity is important and encourage groups to connect their issues to others, including the demands of anarchists. (At the very least getting organizations not to denounce our actions would be fantastic.)

The crossover potential can be additionally bolstered by our interactions in each respective context in terms of drawing on political support and analysis. For example as anarchist activists, how do we relate to community organizing and address the inadequacies and imperfections of some organizations (as were laid out previously) while still trying to play a substantial role? How can we ensure our personal anarchist principles are not watered down through working with organizations that may not share our analysis? How can we best influence community-based organizing to reflect our values and goals while most importantly encouraging community involvement? These ideas can be discussed and debated within anarchist circles, and different approaches can be developed.

And from the other standpoint, as community organizers how can anarchists best serve ongoing campaigns and struggles? What issues are most important to a community? What means of support are most helpful? When does a community not want support? What needs does a community have that we can offer? In order for anarchist groups to be relevant they need to have the answers to these questions, which can be derived from the dialogue incurred through the personal relationships we develop and the political interactions we experience while engaging in this organizing.

Here in the Bay Area there is excitement over the possibilities resulting from recent meetings to build a new structure for action and organizing based on anarchist principles. As I enter into this space I am energized by the optimism and enthusiasm of others, but also engrossed in thought over how this network can best play a role in creating a strong, unified, and diverse movement that will be able to have a significant impact. Meanwhile I am also looking at my relation to local struggles that are resisting the ever-growing gentrification of San Francisco and demanding affordable housing, resisting ICE raids and demanding safe neighborhoods for all their residents, or resisting military recruitment in schools and demanding education alternatives for our youth.

While it is still in its very beginning phases, from this new endeavor I am most intrigued by the seemingly genuine desire to strategize as to how the potential capacity provided by this new group could best interact with non-anarchists, enabling it to build strong local ties as well as bringing in new activists to the anarchist movement. Additionally, I’m hoping there are avenues in which I and other anarchists who may be working with this formation can become better involved in non-anarchist organizing in our area. There remains a divide, but bridges are being built.

David Zlutnick is a member of and contributor to The Friendly Fire Collective. He is currently trying his best to find ways to bridge the divide between anarchist- and community-based organizing in his own efforts.