Anarcho-Punk as Militant Liberalism Part One
|Stop the City 1983|
The anarcho-punk scene soon became a vibrant alternative to the punk scene it declared dead. The anarchism of the typical anarcho-punk was however little more than militant liberalism. Crass had their roots in the old peace movement, and largely ignoring the harsh realities of class warfare in the world outside their commune, set about promoting the ideas of pacifism and lifestyle politics.http://libcom.org/library/kill-chill-aufheben-4
The Anarchist Workers Group also described anarcho-punk as ‘militant liberalism’.
I discovered these critiques via Ben Franks book ‘Rebel Alliances-the Means and Ends of Contemporary British Anarchisms’ published by AK Press in 2006.
The Anarchist Workers Group are described on page 83.
The Anarchist Workers Group membership never rose above 20 and its influence was further reduced, partly as a result of taking sides with the Iraqi dictatorship during the 1991 Gulf War. As if to conform to its critics' accusations of incipient Bolshevism, several of its members joined the Revolutionary Communist Party.
I don’t know how many members the Aufheben collective have, but as a Marxist -academic group based in Brighton, probably not many more. See Part Two of this post for the Aufheben critique of anarcho-punk.
Anarchism in the Thatcher Years -extract- published August 1989
For the first time in years, the start of the decade saw a real increase in the number of people referring to themselves as anarchists. This growing movement of mainly young people was in no small way influenced by the rock group 'Crass' and the imitators they spawned. Their "anarchy and peace" agit-prop was in part inspired by the "do-it yourself" ethos of the punk-rock explosion, and in part hankered back to the pacifistic "alternative lifestyle" tradition that had become a major facet of what passed for the British anarchist movement in the previous 20 years.
Anarchism has always had, to varying degrees, its liberal wing. This is partly because terms bandied around by anarchists, such as anti-authoritarian, freedom and justice, are in themselves meaningless and open to a wide range of interpretations when divorced from their specifically anarchist context: the day to day realities of class society, and an understanding of capitalism and why and how it should be smashed. Going right back to the days of the First International. there were those anarchists who in contrast with Bakunin (1)
"Abandoned the field of struggle of the working class in favour of a particular form of radicalised liberalism."
In Britain in the 1980s anarchism was still tightly in the grip of a rot that set in during the heyday of the l950's peace movement. Many rank and file anti-nuclear activists (7% of the movement during 1958-65(2)) disillusioned with limitations, in terms of politics, leadership and strategy, of the CND adopted anarchism: in part as a reaction to this, and often not fully aware of the political legacy behind their new label, confusing anarchism "with a more militant liberalism" (3). Their confusion was not helped by the sectarianism of the existing - and increasingly isolated - anarchist movement who made little effort to provide a political lead or a class perspective to the new 'anarchists'.
Living in a state of blissful ignorance of class struggle, they promoted their ideas in "Freedom", "Anarchy Magazine" and "Peace News", taking on board and developing the ideas of pacifism, personal liberation and alternative lifestyle. The "punk anarchy" of Crass and their camp was but a continuation of this: a dressed up version of militant liberalism with electric guitars and a brand new haircut, but the same tired face
But it did catch on, striking a chord with the disaffected, young rebels - without a cause but on the look out for one. The small groupings of class - struggle anarchists "active" in the early 1980's repeated the mistakes of the l950's by failing to acknowledge - let alone give a lead to - the new generation who were left to their own devices to "reinvent" "anarchy". In this case it meant inventing a loose, anti-statist pacifist "movement" that left the theory question of class conflict to the trots, instead proclaiming that
"Anarchists believe that if each individual can learn to act out of conscience, rather than greed, the machinery of power will collapse." (Penny Rimbaud, 4)
The small groupings that started to spring up around the country responding to Crass's challenge were soon to be seen on CND demos clustered around their ragged black flags and handing out their leaflets and fanzines, telling the world;
"Don't give in to the authorities, make them give in to you" (5)
but never quite managing to go so far as to suggest a way that this awesome task might be achieved.
In some of the literature of the time, however, the way forward for anarchists was spelled out a bit more clearly. And reading it, you would be forgiven for believing that the anarchist movement was less a political current, more a bizarre religious cult:
"to give back to life what we have taken from it ... understand the seasons, the weather, the soil .. reject the grey filth and shit" (Penny Rimbaud ,6).
It seems there was quite an obsession with shit. Stripping away the mystical nonsense we are left with naked personal politics: the revolution begins - and ends - within. There are, for those whose imaginations have perhaps been tainted by years of dealing with the "grey filth" some useful practical examples of how this discovery of self can be put into practise. And it's the classic lifestylist romanticism of a small band of worthy converts struggling to build the society within the shell of the old with:
"housing co-ops or communes ... gardening groups to squat and farm disused land ... and grow medicinal herbs to cure each others headaches " (Penny Rimbaud, 7)
All very commendable and laudable stuff, but about as revolutionary and "anarchist" as sharing your last Rolo with someone you love. Of course there is nothing wrong with being nice to your mates and eating a lot of organic garlic, the danger was that this was substituted for the more pressing and difficult task of developing and testing out a coherent and workable revolutionary strategy that could win people over to the struggle against capitalism. Bakunin asserted that:
"the serious realisation of liberty, justice and peace will not be possible while the majority of the population remains dispossessed. (8)
However, the punk anarchists hadn't cottoned on to this, and busily sought personal solutions to social problems. Therefore, the groups were little more than consciousness-raising rap groups existing in navel gazing isolation from the real world, helping their participants along on the quest for personal purity.
The movement in the early eighties displayed the worst kind of elitism - the politics of "if everyone was like me wouldn't the world be a wonderful place." The concept of working class mass self-activity didn't get a look-in because there was no understanding - or will to understand the class nature of society. In fact the working class categorised as "grey-nobodies", as people who were:
"in their willingness to bow down to authority ... the real fascist threat." (Penny Rimbaud, 9)
So count out the working class in terms of having any positive role to play in fighting. The action to be taken - aside from changing your own life - was to be taken by the anarchists on behalf of the class and amounted to little more than adventurism and propaganda by deed:
"jam up the locks of banks and of with superglue or cut down fences around government installations ... sabotage operations at work." (1Penny Rimbaud, 10)
Aside from that, ever living for kicks you'd be more likely to find an anarchist a on a hunt sab than a picket line, at a free festival than a march against deportations, advocating shoplifting than fighting cuts in welfare provisions. After all, we're trying to get away from the grey filth and we mustn't forget that:
"boredom is counter-revolutionary militants are people for whom boredom is part of the struggle and being miserable and downtrodden is part of the revolution. (11)
This phase of modern day anarchism had its swan song in the "Stop the City" demonstrations in 1983-4. These were mass demonstrations of anarchists. pacifists and other members of the counterculture that took place in the City of London with the aim of closing it down for the day.
Little attempt was made to broaden them beyond the lifestyle ghetto and although they received national media coverage. they were not much more than adventures of the same type as the beloved super gluing expeditions. albeit on a larger scale. They were a spectacle, and a substitute, for the hardwork of building and organising the fightback, and there were those in the anarchist movement who were beginning to recognise this:
"If we are to build a meaningful anarchist movement we have to go beyond Stop Business as Usual and be prepared to argue our case in the workplace and the community." (12)
The start of the upheaval that transformed the movement in Britain was the great Miners Strike of 1984-5 where the anarchist movement was forced to test its ideas out against a backdrop of genuine struggle. Those who did. found contemporary anarchism wanting. They started to rediscover the class roots of anarchism and realise how far the movement had strayed from them. From the Miners Strike and through to the end of the printers dispute at Wapping many were forced - in one way or another - to make the break and embrace the class struggle.
Not everyone in the movement chose to make that break. There were some who chose to distance themselves from the struggle of people who through lack of time, opportunity or inclination, had not reached the same dizzy heights of personal sanctity as they had.
Thus we saw so-called anarchists refusing to dirty their hands in the Miners Strike, blithely dismissing them en masse as sexist and racist without making any attempt to get to a picket line let alone have any argument about the need to fight. Another way out was to blame workers for the effects of the industry they worked in: thus the miners were not worthy of support because they exploited the earth, as the 'green' anarchists were want to put it.
This mistake was repeated over the Wapping dispute. where an anarchist paper claimed to support the printers but:
"I detest the racist and sexist shit they print ... many have said they are only doing a job like anyone else with no control over what they do. BOLLOCKS" (13)
It gets better. The author goes on to say, talking of the fight for better pay and conditions at work:
"Suddenly all our aims and dreams are thrown aside in the euphoria of class struggle ... playing the capitalist money game." (14)
So the class struggle is reduced to an annoyance. something that gets in the way of the real task of building the anarchist revolution, once again in isolation by the anarcho elite on behalf of everyone else. Again it shows the complete and seemingly wilful ignorance of the anarchist movement about how exciting its is going to be making the revolution, and failing to realise that workers fighting back against the attacks of the boss class are far more relevant to the struggle than any number of obscure and turgid anarcho-rags.
There was however a considerable section of the movement who saw the need to leave all this behind. Unfortunately some of them - seeing the need for political, tactical and organisational coherence - and seeing it to be conspicuous by its absence in the anarchist movement, ended up gravitating towards and in many cases eventually joining the various Leninist parties - notably the SWP - who were active during the Miners Strike and Wapping. The anarchist movement drove away through its own folly - good, active revolutionaries who wanted to fight and for whom the movement had nothing more to offer.
1 "Putting the Record Straight on Michael Bakunin" Libertarian Communist Review 1976
2 R Taylor, C Pritchard "The Protest Makers" Oxford 1980
3 A Meltzer "The Anarchists in London 1935-1955" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
4 P Rimbaud "The Last of the Hippies" in "A Series of Shock Slogans and Mindless Token Tantrums" Existence Press 1982
5 "Prisoners of War" No 1 1983 Page 7
6 P Rimbaud ibid
7 R Rimbaud ibid
8 G Maximof "The Political Philosophy of Bakunin" quoted in P Kane "British Anarchism Surveyed" Virus No 7
9 P Rimbaud ibid
10 P Rimbaud ibid
11 The Beano No 3 June 1986
12 Steve T "Anarcho-syndicalism?" Virus No 7
13 The Beano No 3 June 1986
14 The Beano ibid
15 Black Flag