Saying you are opposed to Capitalism and the State without talking about Imperialism and Colonialism is quite a strange thing to do. It is in fact suspicious, as it indicates not only that you live in an imperialist country and enjoy the benefits of this, but also that you refuse to admit this fact. I am afraid to say this makes you a racist, even if you don’t realist it. Like with drugs, the first step to giving up racism is admitting you have a problem. The UK Anarchist movement has yet to take this first step.
Divide and Rule Affects Anarchists Too
Many people living in Imperialist countries whose armies have invaded other people’s territory to exploit their labour power and resources may feel pissed off at the government for reasons that have nothing much to do with Imperialism.
They may feel that their taxes are too high, for example, or that the government is letting too many immigrants come into the country, or not providing enough public services. In all of these examples such people may actively support even more imperialist government policies to bring more wealth to the country, such as wars of aggression and tightly regulated border controls between imperialist countries and their colonies.
Basic to the age-old Imperialist strategy of divide and rule is the placing of members of certain ethnic groups in privileged positions in relation to others. In settler-colonies such as the modern day Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, the settlers are the group given the privileges by the government, while the indigenous people are subjected to racist oppression. In imperialist “home” countries it is the “indigenous” population which is given privileges by the State whilst migrants from the colonies and their descendants are racially oppressed. Modern day Israel is also a good example of this, as people of Palestinian Arab descent are systematically excluded from political and economic power.
Sticking with the example of Israel, let us examine the Israeli Anarchist movement. Judith Butler, in a lecture available online misleading called “Queer Anarchism and Anarchism Against the Wall” (which in fact barely mentions Queer Anarchism at all) offers a critique of certain sections of the Israeli Anarchist movement which talk about their struggle against the Israeli state as something separate from the Palestinian people’s struggle for self-determination.
Butler points out that many Anarchists, not just in Israeli but all over the world, wrongly understand “self-determination” to mean “the creation of a State”, which is not necessarily the case. Though it is of course true that many Palestinians do wish to see the creation of a new State of “their own” (which to Anarchists would be an impossibility since States are always controlled by elite minorities rather than whole populations) many other Palestinians keep the ideas of self-determination and State-creation deliberately distinct.
This confusion on the part of Anarchists living in Imperialist countries between anti-colonial struggles for self-determination and chauvinistic nationalist struggles for the creation of new States does not just apply to Palestine, but indeed to all anti-colonial struggles. This leads many anarchists from such countries to refuse to support any anti-colonial struggles unless they are explicitly anti-statist, which is very rare.
Point 4 of the UK Anarchist Federation’s Aims and Principles
… is typical of this confusion, stating:
We are opposed to the ideology of national liberation movements which claims that there is some common interest between native bosses and the working class in face of foreign domination. We do support working class struggles against racism, genocide, ethnocide and political and economic colonialism. We oppose the creation of any new ruling class. We reject all forms of nationalism, as this only serves to redefine divisions in the international working class. The working class has no country and national boundaries must be eliminated. We seek to build an anarchist international to work with other libertarian revolutionaries throughout the world.
Notice that there is no distinction made here between different types of nationalism, indeed the first sentence talks about “the ideology of national liberation movements”, as if they were all the same. They do claim to support “working-class” struggles against colonialism, but what does this mean in regions of the world that remain industrially undeveloped or where capitalist modes of labour relations have not been fully established?
The first sentence also mentions “claims that there is some common interest between native bosses and the working class in the face of foreign domination”, but it does not actually offer any argument against these claims, because there is none. No-one can deny for example that the Chinese working class is better off now than they were under colonialism, even if they are still horribly exploited.
But being less exploited is in their interest, and it has come about because of the interests of their “native bosses” in promoting export-led industrial development. The Communist Party has an interest in enriching itself and trying to outcompete the West, and this has led to increases in the standard of living for working class Chinese people as well.
This refusal to provide an analysis of how capitalist economies actually work, beyond the simplistic communist view of that money and wage-labour are inherently wrong and need to be ended, is perhaps part of the reason for these baffling claims against economic nationalism being in the interests of working class people.
What I think the Anarchist Federation mean to say is “being oppressed by native bosses is not as good as being your own boss”. So why don’t they just say this, instead of ruling out support for any anti-colonial movement that calls itself nationalist?
Benedict Anderson argued that “nations” are Imagined Communities, in his book of the same name, because in any nation there are too many people for them to all personally know one another, yet they still think of one another as a community.
Is it not possible, therefore, to imagine a community that you might even use the word “nation” to describe that does not have a State? Anarchism is after all the philosophy that communities don’t need States to exist or manage themselves. But the Anarchist Federation claim that any form of nationalism “divides the working class” and that “national boundaries must be eliminated”.
I would argue on that it is rather Nation-States that divide the working class and that it is the institutions of border control between such States that must be eliminated. If this happens then it really doesn’t matter in economic or political terms whether or not people choose to identify with nationalist concepts.
In the same lecture about Israel, Judith Butler mentions the “age-old” question of whether Anarchy can only exist if there is a State for it to be opposed to, or if Anarchy is instead something that can exist without States, even though it is defined in relation to them.
I would say that of course Anarchy can exist without states, and that just because the word means “without State” it doesn’t mean States have to actually exist for the concept to make sense. Before there were States people obviously didn’t use the word “Anarchy”, because it wouldn’t have meant anything, like how no one used to talk about “organic” food before chemical pesticides and fertilisers were invented. But just because they may have used different words back then it doesn’t mean people’s food wasn’t organic or their societies anarchic by the definitions we use today.
The words “self-determination” are much less confusing, because they are framed in positive terms. Anarchists would perhaps be better off describing their beliefs in such terms, especially when engaging in anti-colonial struggles. If a group of people “imagines” themselves to form part of a national community and organises a political movement calling for their “self-determination”, there is nothing wrong with this in itself from an Anarchist standpoint.
The problem only comes when people start conflating the concepts of “self-determination” with “state creation”, and as anti-statists Anarchists should be the main people voicing opposition to this conflation, rather than conflating it in our own heads as well.
This means instead of closing our eyes and putting our fingers in our ears whenever we hear about a group of people struggling in the name of their national identity, we should actively participate in these movements as much as possible in order to promote an anti-state perspective from within.
It is strange that organisations like the Anarchist Federation do not apply this logic to anti-colonial struggles when it is precisely the same logic they use to justify their engagement with workplace and community struggles more generally. In these struggles, the Anarchist Federation argues, it is necessary for anarchists to be present in order to counteract the tendency of authoritarian and statist groups, whether Marxist, Liberal or whatever, from taking decision making power over the direction of the struggle away from the rank-and-file.
Anarchists do this not only because it provides opportunities to spread our critiques of States and authoritarianism to wider audiences, which is more like a by-product of taking up this role within wider social movements, but also because we believe that if Statists take control of struggles then the rank and file have already lost, whereas we want them to win.
As anti-capitalists, Anarchists desire a world in which the concept of being “working class” becomes meaningless, because there would be no other classes to compare it to. Yet we are happy to call ourselves “working class” right now in order to join in struggles with other people who identify with this label. So why can we not apply the same logic to nationalism?
Just as we criticise Marxists for claiming that working class self-determination can only be achieved by the creation of a Workers State, so should we also be arguing that national self-determination (whatever nation you might be talking about) is not dependent on the creation of a Nation State, but is actually severely damaged by it.
White Supremacist Anarchism
If anarchists living in imperialist countries (such as Russia, Israel, the US and all the EU countries) do not participate in anti-colonial struggles which are being fought against those same states, then we can only conclude that they do not really care about destroying the State they are oppressed by, or in preventing anti-colonial struggles from being taken over by Statists.
If this is so it suggests that they are in fact merely pretending to be opposed to inequality when they really want to maintain their own privileges over colonised people, whom they are also happy to allow to continue to be oppressed by States, whether “foriegn” or “native”. As they will almost always have a different ethnic identity to the colonised people whose struggles they refuse to declare allegiance with, this position must be seen as fundamentally Racist.
I do not mean to suggest that this racism is conscious, and I know full well how quickly people can lose their tempers once accusations of subconscious oppressive attitudes start getting thrown around. In the past Anarchist Federation members have argued that their position is justified because some of their members are from the same countries as the anti-colonial movements which they criticise. This was the apparently the case with an article they produced which criticised the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka for being nationalists, at a time when Tamil civilians were being brutally murdered and one might have expected words of solidarity instead.
If this article was written by somebody of Sri Lankan Tamil descent, then of course it doesn’t make much sense to accuse them as an individual of being racist. But the Anarchist Federation was not a presence at any of the Tamil Solidarity demonstrations going on in the UK at the time, nor has it been very involved in anti-colonialist solidarity activism in general.
Instead they focus mainly on the struggles of unionised workers in the UK, who are predominantly White Europeans of British descent and so are already extremely privileged compared with other ethnic groups. Though the Anarchist Federation is heavily involved in anti-fascist activities, to its credit, it does not emphasise an opposition to racism in UK society more broadly, and is itself a disproportionately White organisation, despite its black (and red) flag.
The main emphasis of the AF is on issues of economic oppression, which also reflects the fact that it is a predominantly White (and Male) organisation. The minority of Female-identifying and Queer members has enabled a shift towards recognising the necessary interconnectedness of struggles against both class society and patriarchy, but so far even this has been limited and no comparable shift towards an anti-racist focus has occurred.
Islamophobic Anarchism and Atheist Chauvinism
This may also have something to do with the AF’s 10th point in its Aims and Principles, which declares:
We oppose organised religion and cults and hold to a materialist analysis of capitalist society. We, the working class, can change society through our own efforts. Worshipping an unprovable spiritual realm, or believing in a religious unity between classes, mystifies or suppresses such self-emancipation / liberation. We reject any notion that people can be liberated through some kind of supernatural force. We work towards a society where religion is no longer relevant.
Though an improvement on the previous wording of this point which simply said “we are opposed to organised religion and religious belief”, the fact that this is even part of the Aims and Principles is clearly going to disincline the vast majority of the world’s population from wanting to have anything to do with the organisation. When I was a member of the Anarchist Federation I witnessed and participated in many discussions on this issue and found that the Anti-religious faction was simply too powerful within the organisation for there to be much hope of this changing.
This is one of the reasons that I declared in my “Critique of the Anarchist Federation” that the organisation should just be abandoned and a new one formed, because it is too set in its ways to be reformed, much like the State it purports to oppose.
I found many Anarchist Federation members, and other White UK anarchists generally, to hold Islamophobic views almost identical to the fascists they opposed. Many Anarchists fall into the trap of accepting the Fascists’ own terms of the debate, including the assumption that Islam is inherently authoritarian and sexist.
Most Westerners have a very poor understanding of the core teachings of Islam, and Anarchists are no exception. All you need to do in order to be considered a Muslim, according to the most liberal interpretations of the Koran, is declare belief in a single God and Mohammed as the messenger of that God. In itself this has nothing to do with the question of whether or not one is opposed to the state or has a materialist analysis of capitalism.
Going one step further in being a good Muslim than simply saying you think the Koran is genuinely the word of a single God who actually exists, you could also decide to pray 5 times a day (which is mainly just declaring the first point over and over again), give 2.5 per cent of your income to the poor, fast during Ramadan and try to visit Mecca at least once in your life.
That’s it. Those are the 5 pillars of Islam and everything else is pretty much optional (again, according to the most liberal interpretations). Women don’t have to cover their faces, and have the right to divorce their husbands. All races of people are considered equal. Usury and inequalities of wealth are considered immoral. Oppressed people have the right to fight back against oppression.
Rather than being opposed to Anarchism, liberal forms of Islam actually complement it incredibly well. Any religion that emphasises “One God, One Authority” can also be interpreted as an anarchistic statement that “there should be no human authority in the material world”.
Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t give you the right to say that people who do cannot be true revolutionaries. Just because you were brought up to believe in Christianity – a particularly illogical religion which tries to say that God both is and isn’t human at the same time – then lost your faith in it later, that doesn’t mean you know everything about all world religions.
Believing in “materialism” as the Anarchist Federation claims to, usually means having been raised in a society where you have been able to achieve a high enough standard of scientific education to be able to get at least the basic gist of both the Biological Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection and the Cosmological Theory of the “Big Bang” as well as the Socio-economic “Labour Theory of Value”.
These theories are all on the State school curriculum’s of many Western countries, and open discussion of them is not punishable by law. This is not the case in most of the rest of the world.
Even if many anti-colonial political organisations may be “secular” this does not make their members Athiests, and secularism is in fact more often used to help people of different religious faiths get along rather than to help them get along with athiests.
I am not going to claim that refusing to work with religious people is actually racist, even though the majority of people who take such a hard line against religion are likely to be from ethnically privileged backgrounds. What I will say though is that it does nothing to help the aims of the movement, which I understand to be the achievement of greater working class unity around the world.
There is no reason why someone cannot have both a materialist analysis of capitalism and a moral one which is prepared to actually call capitalists and governments Evil. The use of moral language in political discourse makes for much more powerful propaganda than just “holding to a materialist analysis of capitalism”. If you say “capitalism is against our interests as a working class people” the obvious response is “So what? Who are we to assert our interests anyway, in a value-free materialistic universe?” but if you also say “revolutionary activity is the only moral thing to do” then you hit people where it hurts, their hearts.
Non-white people living in the UK, or the world in general, are much less likely to be Atheists. This means that most people actively struggling against colonialism – and therefore against presently existing States – have some kind of religious view. Saying that they “worship…an unprovable spiritual realm [which] mystifies or suppresses [their] self-emancipation/liberation” is not only a terrible way to express solidarity with them, it is also quite clearly not true.
Religious faith is often cited by its practitioners to be the only thing keeping them going in tough times, such as when they are fighting revolutionary wars against the State for instance. Far from “suppressing” their self-emancipation, religious teachings often provide a catalyst for it, for example when Malcolm X encouraged Black people in the US to organise for “self-defence by any means necessary”.
This was a most revolutionary idea and one which was based on Islamic religious teachings that legitimise violence against oppressors. Indeed, one of the last things the Prophet Mohammed said to his followers before he died was “do not oppress, and do not be oppressed” which could be considered an elegant summing up of anarchist revolutionary practice.
Again, just because you may see your own society’s dominant religion – Christianity, for most Westerners – as a force keeping down the working class in your country, it doesn’t mean that religious belief necessarily always plays this role everywhere in the world. Even Christianity has sometimes been used as a catalyst for revolutionary anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles, especially in Latin America, where many Catholic Priests influenced by “Liberation Theology” even took up arms themselves against the State alongside poor people.
If the Anarchist Federation, or any other similar organisation, wants to be a private members clubs for atheists only, it should choose another name. Christian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu Anarchists have all played roles in world history and will continue to do so. So will anti-statist nationalists involved in anti-colonial struggles.
Anarchists of all ethnic and religious/philosophical identities should unite on the basis of a shared commitment to the self-determination of all people and the negation of all States, and leave religious and national/racial identities out of it.
Then we might just stand a chance of really becoming a global working class movement.