This is a very long comment I wrote on this article — http://ideasandaction.info/2010/07/review-international-socialist-review-on-contemporary-anarchism/ — at the Ideas and Action web site. I’m posting my comment here for self-archiving purposes.
That article is a reply by Tom Wetzel to an article by ISO member Eric Kerl. Kerl criticized contemporary anarchism. Kerl’s article is online here -
Kerl’s article and Wetzel’s reply are both worth reading.
I thought Kerl misrepresented a Chicago-area anarchist collective from a few years back, so I wrote this up. I knew some members of that group and still know some of the ex-members, so I was sure they didn’t think what Kerl suggested they thought. I did some digging and that confirmed it, Kerl got their politics wrong. I think the stuff from this group is still worth looking at, links below. I would eventually like to interview people who were involved in this effort and write it up in terms of lessons to draw, both negatives ones and positives ones, so that other people can learn from that experience and also just as a matter of having a sense of our history. I’d been meaning to do this for a while but had forgotten. That’s the silver lining to Kerl’s article, reminding me of this project and getting me to read over that groups writings again.
In his article, Kerl references the Chicago-based Brick Collective, part of the midwestern Federation of Revolutionary Anarchist Collectives (FRAC). Both Brick and FRAC are now defunct, but I know at least some of their member remain active in the anarchist movement and in anarchist organizations.
Kerl provides a link to a 2003 statement by Brick, but it’s buried in his footnotes. Given how Kerl presents the statement, he does not encourage his readers to go read the Brick statement. Quite the opposite, the strong implication is that the Brick statement is not worth reading. In my opinion, the statement is worth reading in its entirety, both as an example of what some anarchists were saying a few years ago — I think the list of practical tasks at the end is still relevant today — as well as for its claims about the present, that are still worth considering today. Kerl should consider reading the statement. From his treatment of the statement it’s hard to believe he actually read it.
Don’t take my word for it, though, go read the statement then see if you think Kerl presents Brick’s politics accurately. The statement is online here –
Kerl uses Brick to open up his discussion of “Post-Leftism.” The heading is inaccurate of Brick’s political and theoretical perspectives. In fact, Brick was part of what Kerl calls “social movement anarchism”, and perhaps what he calls “class struggle anarchism.”
Kerl claims that Brick are an example of “anarchists [who] draw a stark contrast between themselves and others on the left—even declaring that real anarchism must consider itself outside the left.” I don’t see anything in there that suggests that anarchists should see themselves as “outside the left.”
Kerl quotes the Brick statement:
“Roughly speaking we would divide the resistance into two camps: 1) authoritarian, and 2) autonomous and anarchist. The differences between the two general approaches and visions are significant, and cannot be bridged by a shared militancy. In fact, as anarchist revolutionaries, antifascists, and radical feminists we understand our situation as a three-way fight. Them, Them, and Us.” Kerl then adds that “According to this creed, the main division in society is not between classes, nor even between oppressor and oppressed, but between those who are “authoritarian” and those who are “anti-authoritarian.””
It’s hard to see how Kerl gets this view from the Brick statement. Kerl misrepresents the statement in at least three ways.
One, he suggests here that the Brick statement underemphasizes class. That’s a question worth discussing, but Kerl would have to actually engage with the politics of the statement if he wanted to have that discussion. Doing so would have to involve engaging with Brick’s analysis of, as they put it, the “offensive directed at the working classes internationally” and the “presents opportunities for class unity.”
Another misrepresentation on Kerl’s part is his implication that the Brick statement is a static social vision — a matter of “the main division in society” — when actually the statement is an attempt at thinking dynamically and historically. That is, the Brick statement tries to lay out a particular moment in time with various forces operating. Immediately before the quote Kerl takes out of context, the statement says that “The world system of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and the state is going thru a monumental reorganization which involves a great deal of inner-ruling class competition. This has temporarily weakened it at points, providing openings for resistance from below.”
Kerl goes on to make his third misrepresentation. He writes that “Taken at face value, this means that the Brick Collective sees other individuals and organizations on the left, even if they are fighting for the same things (for example, against the war in Iraq or a G-8 summit), as enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state. This sectarianism, in which these anarchists hold themselves to be the only “true” rebels, naturally puts them in a posture whereby they claim no accountability to other forces in the movement.”
The implication here is that Brick was and similar anarchists are willing to fight others on the left — “enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” If Brick saw the non-anarchist left as enemies at the same level of the state that would indeed make them a problem. I wonder how the ISO would handle such forces. I’m sure they don’t have a policy of turning the other cheek to people who would treat them as “enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” I would say that left forces who treated other left forces as such enemies would themselves need to be dealt with harshly. It’s hard not to read Kerl as suggesting that Brick was a danger to the rest of the left. Fortunately, Brick didn’t actually believe what Kerl says. That makes his assertions about them decidedly uncomradely, even irresponsible. Again, it’s hard to believe Kerl read the Brick statement if this is what he really thinks it says.
Brick say who they have in mind then they talk about what they call “authoritarian” movements. The Brick statement argues that the global situation included “a serious force committed to fighting and overturning the US government, other western governments and radically remaking society. But they are our enemies also. (…) The Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave us a glimpse of what this kind of force looks like in power.” Brick are quite clear that they are talking about “fundamentalism and fascism.” Obviously Kerl does not think that anyone on the left should ally with fundamentalists or fascists, on this he must agree with Brick. Kerl may disagree with Brick about whether or not these forces pose a challenge to the US government, the world order, and capitalist society.
Brick include a third group under the authoritarian movements they reject – “Authoritarian communist and nationalists [who] continue as guerilla groups in several Third World countries and as opposition parties in the West.” Brick argue that while these groups “once may have seemed radical, [they] are now clearly about control by a party elite (usually middle-class intellectuals) of a revolutionary state, that in turn controls all of society.” Kerl may disagree with this too. These are debates worth having, but here too Kerl would have to actually engage with what the statement says, instead of conflating Brick with very different positions and using cherry-picked quotes to produce an easily dispatched strawman that doesn’t actually reflect Brick’s views.
Here is how Brick defines the movements they are inspired by and feel affinity toward:
“So who is the Us? Who do we stand with on this planet? The Zapatistas uprising, the Battle in Seattle, and Argentinas revolt. The anarchist and alternative unions in Europe, the land seizures in Brazil, and the heroism of RAWA. The anti-privatization movement in South Africa, the Belfast-based free-speech forum The Blanket, and the bonfires in Quebec City. Peoples Global Action, the IndyMedia Centers, and the
International Libertarian Solidarity network.
This sample of movements, organizations, actions, and projects may seem unwieldy, but it has a logic. As a movement, its main characteristics include: conscious anti-capitalism, a rejection of vanguardism and statecraft, a broad repertoire of militant direct action, a directly democratic process, an egalitarian vision, a commitment to autonomy, political and physical hostility to the fascists and fundamentalists, an ecological understanding, and deep reservations about the effects and effectiveness of an armed-struggle strategy- among others.
Anarchism is a significant minority within these movements, better known and with more momentum than any time in the last sixty years. Marxists and ex-Marxists also exert significant influence.”
The last sentence is significant: Brick included Marxists in the “Us” of the “autonomous” movements they identify with.
I also want to point out that the “three way fight” part of Brick’s statement has strong Marxist roots. One important influence on this perspective has roots in the Chicago-based Marxist group the Sojourner Truth Organization. Readers interested in their analyses of fascism and of the role of white supremacy in the United States can consult STO documents here:
In a recent article posted at the Marxist web site Kasama, here — http://kasamaproject.org/2010/03/31/fascism-as-movement-and-ideology/ — Matthew Lyons helpfully summarizes a variety of Marxist analyses of fascism, some of which informed the Brick collective’s analysis that global capitalism is creating a threat of an insurgent fascist movement.
Readers might also see the blog Three Way Fight – http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/ – that site came after the Brick statement, but it offers a version of the “three way fight” analysis that Brick invoked. That sight also includes several articles by Don Hamerquist, a self-described Leninist who has been influential in shaping three way fight analysis.
I’m not arguing for or against any of these positions. I’m merely pointing out that Brick drew upon Marxist analyses, in addition to seeing some Marxists as part of the “Us” of autonomous movements.
How Kerl could read the Brick statement and conclude that “these anarchists hold themselves to be the only “true” rebels” and that they do so in a way that “naturally puts them in a posture whereby they claim no accountability to other forces in the movement” is beyond me… unless he had already concluded that before he read the statement.
Kerl accuses Brick of sectarianism. Perhaps they are a bit sectarian with their offhanded statement “We are not the rigid, boring left and we don’t want to look like it.” At the risk of putting words in others’ mouths, I imagine that Brick would include Kerl’s group, the ISO, in the category “the rigid, boring left.” Still, nowhere in the statement is there any suggestion that Brick would treat others on the US left — that is, genuinely left forces who opposed the Iraq war and the G-8 — “as enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state.” Kerl’s the sectarian here, misrepresenting others on the left grossly, and implying that they’d be willing to treat other leftists as enemies. Kerl’s misrepresentations of Brick are dishonest, or at best incredibly sloppy intellectually. Being merely rigid and boring would be an advance.
One other follow up point, about the Brick Collective and class –
Brick belonged to a federation named FRAC. One of the other FRAC collectives, Night Vision, held that FRAC needed “to be doing consistent organizing work among the most oppressed sectors of the working class” — http://web.archive.org/web/20040215091312/www.frac.ws/nightvisionTandP.html
In another statement, Brick called for “more discussion in FRAC as to how, as a Federation, we should approach the need to work more amongst working people and less amongst “activists.” The question is not whether to do this but how and by what means.” The statement continued, asserting “the need for FRAC to engage the labor movement (not just AFL-CIO, but yes, they are a part of what we mean by that)” and asked “What type of labor movement do we think is capable of building explicit working class resistance of an anti-capitalist nature?” Some Brick members were involved in work in their unions, work that Brick saw as “key to the development of the type of movement we wish to see.”
And, FRAC’s first point of unity began “We are Anti-Capitalist. We are against capitalism” and specified that FRAC wanted capitalism to be replaced with “a cooperative, bottom-up, and democratic form of communism where those who work control the means of production. We go by the maxim: To each according to their need, from each according to their ability” –
It seems clear from these remarks that Brick took class to be very important, despite Kerl’s assertion that they didn’t care about class and only cared about whether someone was anarchist or not.
Interested readers can consult other material on FRAC’s old web site via the Wayback Machine:
http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.frac.ws/. I encourage people to do so.
As I already said, Kerl misrepresented the Brick Collective. More than that, he misrepresented them with a very serious charges, that their political outlook would lead them to treat others on the left as enemies just as bad as the state. Given the gravity of this claim, Kerl should have done a lot more research before making that claim. I used to know some of the Brick members so I knew Kerl was inaccurate, so I knew to check his facts. That fact checking took me about half an hour. All I did was go to the URL of the Brick statement he included in his footnote. That statement included the URL of the FRAC web page. Given how big of an accusation he was making, and given how easy it was for me to look all this up, Kerl could have should have done his homework better. He should have investigated further into Brick’s politics before making the claims he did. I’m not generally prone to quoting Mao, but when it comes to accusations like Kerl’s, I think one Mao slogan is pretty good: “no investigation no right to speak.”