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Postmortem: A conference between 'post-left' anarchists and anti-state communists
by Aragorn!
Sunday Dec 21st, 2003 10:50 PM

The anarchist study group (ASG)1 at the Long Haul had been paying attention to the rise of intelligent commentary both critical of the modern anarchist milieu and engaged in a parallel criticism of the system as a whole. This is exemplified by publications like Aufheben (UK) and Against Sleep and Nightmare (US) that aspire to deepen the struggle against the current order. Locally there has been a tradition of collaboration and fracture between Anti-State Communists (ASC) and the anarchist milieu. This history has largely been lost but it is worth citing and learning from.
The goal for the ASG was to learn about this tendency, its history, motivations, and antecedents. This began with G. accepting the ASG invitation to give a presentation on his perspectives on ASC. He began with requesting that the reading group read Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organization by Rene Riesel (link), which does a better than fair job of explicitly defining and historically reviewing what exactly council communism is. His presentation centered on the events of Germany from 1917-1921 and a telling, from the perspective of the revolutionary groups at the time, of the German Revolution. One of the most unusual and intriguing (to the ASG) aspects of G. presentation is that he defined himself as a proponent of non-Marxist Communist. This was exciting for the ASG who clamored for more.

The question then became, given the spirit of comradeship given during the presentation and the knowledge that there hasn't always been such positivity between the involved tendencies, how to broaden and deepen this conversation. On further discussion with G. the conclusion was that some sort of conference might be appropriate. This conference was organized with members of the ASG and a circle of people that work with G. on assorted projects. It was organized as an 'invitation-only' conference with an openness towards people inviting other people, but not towards it becoming a public event. The conference was 8 hours a day for two days with lunch served by the organizers.

From the invitation to the conference.

"It is clear that both traditional Marxism and traditional anarchism have failed to offer humanity any kind of sustained alternatives to the continuation of capital and the state. It has been the experience of those presenting this invitation that the more the authoritarian left clings to the last vestiges of its living death, the more the anti-authoritarian tendencies among those interested in authentic revolutionary self-organization has grown in relevance. We have therefore decided to organize a two-day conference of like-minded individuals to discuss what we see as a gradual convergence of ideas, in the hope of clarifying the issues of theory and practice that have kept anti-state/libertarian communists and post-left/radical anarchists apart historically. We would like to figure out if there are enough similarities among us to create and sustain any kind of collaborative efforts. "

Optimism was not the first order of the weekend. Given the complicated personalities and historic tension between anarchists and ASC in the past the organizers developed the structure of the event in what could generously be described as a plodding methodological format designed to have some basic conversations with one another before launching into what was suspected to be highly contentious and personalizing debate.

The agenda (which can be found here ) began with the attendees defining the different 'parent' tendencies that represent our positions. The ASC defined was Left Communism, Libertarian Communism, Council Communism (both German and Italian), Bordigists, Socialism or Barbarism (Castoriadis), the Situationist International, International Communists, Libertarian Marxists, Autonomists (German and Italian), Cammate, Wildcat, and Barrot. The PLA defined Insurrectionary, Anti-Civilization, and Green Anarchisms, Primitivism, DIY Punk/Hardcore, Crimethinc, Individualists (and egoism), Post-anarchism, and Pacifism. Even keeping these definitions brief entailed the first three hours of the event being a refresher of ideas that many in the room already understood and not enough information for those who were exposed to them for the first time.

The next item on the agenda was a review of what could be seen as a similar attempt at bringing anarchists and ASC together in the late seventies and early eighties. It was local (to the Bay Area) and called the UCC (the Union of Concerned Commies). It brought together groups like Red-Eye, Work and Pay, and Collective Inventions. Its history shook out in completely unsurprising ways in that a certain set of people involved were interested in keeping the politics non-confrontational which limited the kinds of projects that the UCC could embark on. These 'vague-ists' later went on to participate in Processed World, favoring clever and cosmopolitan over a defined, coherent politic.

The final and longest item discussed on the first day was a review of some of the highlights of resistance (from the perspective of ASC and PLA) through the 20th century, with an eye on the question "What has prevented us from working together before?" While the question was not directly answered, there were some swipes in the direction of the question throughout the discussion. What was obvious was the high degree of specialization (for lack of a better word) embodied by some of the participants of such historical events as Kronstadt, the Spanish Civil War, and the German Revolution of 1919. One of the running jokes throughout the weekend was in reference to the specifics of the German Revolution and the obscure ability that knowledge gave one to understand the difference between the KPD, the KAPD, and the AAUD.

There was a nod in the direction of talking about recent events (Argentina, the recent War Protests) that quickly turned into a heated conversation about protest politics and the power of marching en masse. There was general consensus against the ritual of protest, with one exception that kept the conversation heated.

The first day had around 30 participants throughout the day and a lunch of vegan potpie, baby lettuce salad and pumpkin and pear pies. No Food Not Bombs for this group!

After the event of the first day most of the participants scattered to the four winds. Most of the out-of-towners, and those who hadn't talked themselves out, continued the evening with a trip to Smart Alec's (a mediocre kind-of vegetarian hamburger joint) and then a private showing of the "The Fellowship of the Ring of Free Trade" (a parody of the Fellowship of the Ring from an anti-globalization perspective) and "We Interrupt this Empire" (about the resistance to the Gulf War of 2003).

The second day started slowly. We attempted to lure people to show up on time (10:00 am) with the promise of muffins, good coffee, and zucchini bread, but still didn't get started until 10:30. People didn't entirely roll in until almost noon.

The agenda for the second day built on the 'trust' established the first day and was more directly pointed at critical discussion. The question was asked the first day (to the anarchists) "Why don't you just use the term communism?" which prefaced much of the eventual discussion during day two (although the same question was not asked again, the inverse was). The specific question we tried to center the conversation on was "What are the lingering questions from the "other" tendency that need answering?" For the anarchists there were not a lot of pointed questions, which highlighted the fact that most of the anarchists knew a hell of a lot less about the ASC than the ASC knew about the anarchists. The ASC were most interested in hearing how anarchists addressed the problem of being an ahistorical tendency (as in unconcerned with its own history of revolutionary failure and the inability to deal with the problematic of power (as in Spain)). They also argued that anarchist’s criticism of Marx was a)overly simplistic and b)de-emphasized the importance of having an analysis of political economy. Finally they made the argument that their perspective was a materialist perspective that is something that PLA do not seem to have established.

The most coherent anarchist criticism of the ASC perspective was regarding the question of 'Hierarchy and Authority' by I. While the definitions of hierarchy and authority are not particularly clear, it is clear that anarchists are concerned with combating this problematic to an extent not of concern to ASC. This developed into a brief exchange regarding which tradition has a more valid claim to concerns outside of economics. Mentioned specifically is the anarchist desire for 'freedom,' as a symbol for a psychological component to the tendency that the ASC do not have. In response, the Frankfurt School was brought up as a Marxist (although not ASC) group with interests in psychology, culture, sociology and more. Woven through this conversation was a question brought up on day one. "Who is to be suppressed?" This is a particular problematic for anarchists as the question of violence is normally thought of as a very different question than suppression. Put another way, should 'the people' (the proletariat, the dispossessed) take the 'voice' away from the exploiting class? What if that looks like taking away the freedoms normally associated with a liberal republic (speech, commerce, and movement)?

The highlight of the weekend was when we did a go-around where the question was finally asked "Describe your political tendency without the use of jargon" which was the first time over the course of the weekend where we specifically argued for our own individual political position. The unique thing about this constellation of people was that in a room of 25 or so people you authentically heard 25 different articulations of many of the same themes. While quite a few of the anarchists cited a desire for freedom and quite a few of the communists wanted to not be alienated, the way that people talked about their position was refreshingly distinctive. This was not a room filled with voyeurs.

Lunch was served and consisted of fake meat hoagies and butternut squash soup. Dessert was a mix of vegan cookies, snicker doodles, chocolate chip, and peanut butter.

The post-lunch discussion was anti-climactic in a rather inspiring way. The tendency at many conferences is to leave very little time at the end of an event, to discuss what all that you have talked about before really means in terms of future work. Obviously this question was asked here too, "What form can future collaborative efforts take?" Instead of there being an insistence on a centralized task that everyone could/should sign onto, the group generally talked about what projects they were working on and requested that interested parties contact them at their leisure. People agreed to a sharing of contact information and a proposal to continue the conversations that have started at the ASG site. sfbay forum.

What went right?

Given the setup, a lot of things went right. The space was really conducive to the type of meeting that we had and the number of people that attended. It was better attended than the organizers had hoped for, given the obscurity of the subject matter and the word-of-mouth nature of the invite process.

The food was great. If the ASG has proven one thing (time and time again) it is that we can throw a good party where conversation, and not idiots, is the main attraction.

There was not a major fight. Given the egos and politics in the room, there was every expectation for a knock-down, drag-out fight between a couple of the hotheads. This did not materialize. There was some flirting with larger arguments (including me rising to the bait of yet another call to 'get out of your anarchist ghetto and start working with real people') but people kept a level head. (There was at least one heated argument over dinner but was quickly diffused out of apparent lack of energy and general comradeship)

The people were very interesting. People can be surprising. Right when you are ready to write off a certain set of people for being too rarified in their knowledge base, or too (anti) ideological they surprised you with a crystal clear point that you didn't think of before. There were people there who represented the best of the ASC and anarchist traditions over the past 30 years.

The people were very knowledgeable. Given the age of the participants (the opening go-around entailed many of the people citing their years of experience with the average being well over 10 years), this isn't that surprising but it was a pleasure to hear a consistent level of both lived and learned knowledge throughout the weekend.

Trust was built . While the group didn't seem ready to do trust-falls and grab an earth ball, there was an escalated level of trust in the room after the weekend than there was before. An argument could be made that these are the kind of baby steps that will allow for the running that we may need to do in the future.

What went wrong?

A lot of the weekend was really boring. The entire first day served as a type of sophisticated trust building exercise. This was great from the perspective that the weekend ended up not (obviously) alienating anyone, but no one necessarily left punching the air ready to set Berkeley aflame.

Some people talked too much. This is related to the problem of experts (and ego) but there were a half a dozen people (myself included) who took up at least 2/3rds of the speaking time over the weekend. That is a shame and seemingly insurmountable.

The language could use some work. The title of the conference went something like 'Anti State Communists and Post-Left Anarchists collaboration conference’, which rolled off your tongue with the ease of swallowing a mouthful of glass. The entire weekend was loaded with what seemed like subjective interpretations of a lengthy laundry list of empty phrases (which was the motivation for the 'jargon-free' go-around) that seemed more like reflection of our positions in an obscure caste than our ability to articulate what is on the mind of the dispossessed.

Growing old isn't all that it's cracked up to be. While there being a decided lack of controversy over the weekend was a positive, in terms of not chasing people away and not tilting windmills over semantics, there did seem to be a decided lack of passion in the room. Maybe more name-calling was necessary to inspire the kind of energy that would translate into taking the spirit of the weekend onto the streets.

Organization. The organizers (I speak of myself most pointedly) did not have facilitation in mind which allowed for certain individuals to talk for far too long, to dominate the direction of the conversation in exactly the ways that we were attempting to challenge (i.e. leftist), and for certain experts to talk again and again about subjects many other people could have spoken (even without quite the authority of the expert). The wrong balance was struck between being open and accommodating and getting shit done.

1. Acronyms. No one denies that acronyms are both clumsy and the quickest way to chase people out of the room that aren't already convinced that they should be there. That said, seeing Anarchist Study Group, Anti-State Communist, or Post-Left Anarchist repeated over and over again is mind numbing and repetitive. Acronyms are used to simplify and that is what they do here.
Listed below are the latest comments about this post.
These comments are submitted anonymously by website visitors.
Re: it also alienates the majority of the very people anarchists most need to reach out toworking class foodSunday Dec 28th, 2003 7:27 PM
One thing this piece fails to do is explain isJoe Six-PackSunday Dec 28th, 2003 3:33 PM
The differences betweenDeanosorWednesday Dec 24th, 2003 12:51 AM

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