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An interview with new British organization, Collective Action
On 1 May 2012, a new anarchist communist organization called Collective Action was launched in the UK, together with the release of a statement (Where We Stand: Formation of a new Anarchist Communist project in the UK). In an attempt to clear up some points that were not clear from the statement or from the other documents published by the organization, Anarkismo.net has carried out this interview, in which the answers to our questions represent the jointly-held positions of Collective Action's members. [Eλληνικά]
An interview with new British organization, Collective Action
Can you elaborate on the circumstances that gave rise to Collective Action?
Over the last few years some Collective Action members had attempted to bring about political and organisational changes to the Anarchist Federation. These changes were not forthcoming and after a period of time they became increasingly frustrated at what was perceived to be a liberal cultural attitude dominating the organisation, as well as, ironically, a reluctance to change. At the same time we – as a group of anarchist communists – felt that it was necessary for the preservation of the anarchist communist tradition in modern Britain, for like-minded people to refocus their activity – primarily on understanding current class composition and how that best informs how we insert our ideas and tactics within our class. We describe this process as “Regroupment” and believed a separate association, independent from other organisations, was the best way to organise that process.
How do you see Collective Action with regard to the other national anarchist organisations in the UK – Solidarity Federation, Anarchist Federation and Liberty & Solidarity?
The Solidarity Federation is an anarcho-syndicalist union and as such has very little to do with our perspective. Collective Action should be looked upon as a current within the anarchist communist movement seeking Regroupment. In that respect, we are fundamentally divergent to the ideas and aims of a group like SolFed. Likewise, the Anarchist Federation is essentially a propaganda outlet that has a lackadaisical attitude towards organisation, which is in contrast to how we believe an anarchist communist group should operate. Also, as far as we can tell, AFed does not agree with our outlook that a process of Regroupment is necessary or even desirable. Liberty & Solidarity is a socialist-syndicalist group affiliated to the Anarkismo Statement. As an organisation of this type we do not perceive many areas of commonality between us. L&S members are active within housing campaigns and the UK section of the Industrial Workers of the World (where we also have militants). Like Collective Action, Liberty & Solidarity emerged as a project from dissatisfied Anarchist Federation members. However, we think both our analyses and proposals for alternatives are ultimately at odds. This is both in terms of our principle focus on Regroupment as well as our political disagreements regarding our analysis of the conservative character of the trade unions and their ideological orientation towards a socialist-syndicalist (as opposed to anarchist communist) position. They have also proposed various cosmetic changes to anarchist activism – such as abandoning the label "anarchist” – which we are strongly opposed to.
In your launch statement you provide a pretty damning analysis of the anti-austerity movement in the UK. Do you believe there are any grounds for hope in this respect?
There is always hope, but we shouldn’t let hope blind us into thinking that something can be successful just because we want it to be. There is a structural problem with the anti-austerity movement; this is obvious in the way that the TUC and Marxist Left have, as always, sought to create and to dominate power structures that have led and will always lead to stagnation. Intervention by anarchists in that respect has been negligible and there have been no meaningful alternatives presented to counter those worn-out Leftist strategies. There is also a more pervasive ideological problem that the anti-austerity movement faces, in that the nature of the struggles do not follow the necessary trend of building a counter-power capable of eventually creating communist reconstruction. What is meant by that is that we are not confident that existing struggles have the ability to be radically transformed into something that can meaningfully forward our objective of taking control of the means of production.
How do we resolve this particular problem? For us, we are not sure whether it is even worth attempting, since the actual struggles that the anti-austerity movement is involved in are struggles for a minority, a privileged section of the working class, whose conditions do not speak to the marginalised majority, who in recent months have actually demonstrated a willingness to build a counter power – look at the August riots. This was the beginning of a genuine expression of rage that, if armed with the right ideas, could have cemented an escalation of class conflict. Collective Action wants to investigate how we insert anarchist communist ideas and methods into these communities and connect the politics to the otherwise disconnected expressions of frustration and anger that exist towards capitalism and the State. As such, we are not sure how these parochial anti-austerity “groups” fit into that long-term objective.
In your launch statement you describe the principle objective of CA as "Regroupment", to revisit and rekindle your politics. Could you elaborate on what this means?
Regroupment essentially means sitting down together and working out what is going on and, in that context, what we want to achieve and how we aim to achieve it. It’s as simple as that. More broadly, we see Regroupment as the reorientation of revolutionaries to re-engage with anarchist communist ideas and history as well as engaging with new ideas and theory that is being published. This is why we are looking at Specifism and the Platformist tradition, as well as taking very seriously the ideas of the new autonomist Regroupment current Plan C, which has emerged in the UK, as well as the theoretical Sic Communisation Collective.
This collective education and engagement with contemporary ideas will help us develop our analysis and better inform our activity. We understand that some will consider this to be “navel gazing”; largely because of an anti-intellectual attitude that seems to exist in the anarchist movement, but also because there is this misconception that what anarchists have to be doing is “action”, irrespective of what it means or how it fits into a general strategy for victory. Ultimately, we say that if people feel the activity they are participating in is genuinely working towards building communist reconstruction, then that’s great. We recognise that in reality the current activity of the movement cannot achieve victory and therefore a refocus on our movement and how we operate is necessary, whether we like it or not. Having said that, we continue to be militants in our localities, involved in struggles that we consider appropriate and therefore our thinking and discussions are informed by our past and ongoing experiences.
As a self-identified "Specifist" group do you perceive any points of distinction in respect to the UK anarchist movement?
"Specifism" (or Especifismo) is a political current principally associated with the theory and organising practices of the Anarchist Federation of Rio de Janiero (FARJ) and the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation (FAU). In the English-speaking world it is often considered simply a variant of anarchist Platformism, but as the FARJ argue, and we agree, the ideas are much broader and richer than this. Neither are these ideas just that of the FARJ and FAU, as they locate their ideas in the spirit of the organisationalist theories of Malatesta, Bakunin and Kropotkin (this is actually also true of the Platform but is rarely acknowledged). We think this notion of engaging in a more critical reappraisal of these original anarchist thinkers is valuable and allows us to bypass the more cultural articulations of anarchism that have become intermingled with anarchist practice in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, it needs to be clear that this process is not about re-affirming some form of ideological purity; we revisit these thinkers because of their role as organised revolutionaries whose ideas were earned through experience of social struggle. Our task in this sense is to identify the comparable contexts and lessons while also updating and modifying our approaches for the conditions and class composition under advanced capitalism. There has been a recent re-emergence in the English-speaking world of classical anarchist literature, e.g. Van Der Walt and Schmidt's Black Flame and McKay's volume on Proudhon, which has proved very useful in respect to this.
In terms of points of differentiation, specifism – as a form of praxis – has a strategic and programmatic focus that we see as lacking (or at least partially lacking) in other organisations. We see this as related to the prevalence of a spontaneist current in anarchism, quite distinct from the organisational theories of Bakunin and others.
Specifists argue that, foremost, anarchists need to understand their role as a revolutionary minority and how they relate to a wider and much more complex terrain of social struggle. We believe these questions are increasingly pressing in respect to the current economic and social climate and the clarity of the specifist approach is a useful tool to begin answering them.
We reject the, currently quite popular, idea that anarchist activity is simply about broadening and escalating resistance. Undoubtedly this is a component of building class confidence and solidarity, but as a strategy in itself it doesn't do justice to our ideas. The questions that revolutionaries should be putting to themselves now is not just how they can fight cuts and break the consensus on austerity but what part they can play (however small) in escalating social struggles (or playing their part in organising new ones) towards a consolidation of counter-power and process of communisation.
How do you conceive of anarchosyndicalism, given that you (critically) support it in some format, but clearly differ from Solidarity Federation?
Liberty & Solidarity's interest is in "independent" – as opposed to anarchist – syndicalism (which they endorse uncritically). For AFed it would be fair to say that both them and SolFed have a close working relationship and co-operate on many campaigns. There is also joint membership in some instances, although AFed are nothing like an organised faction within SolFed. It's only in recent years that SolFed have begun to operate as an organising union so in terms of both their and AFed's activity as propaganda groups they were often quite close. AFed make it clear in their literature that they do not support the organisation of mass, anarcho-syndicalist unions, seeing them as both impractical and open to co-option. Instead they talk of the need for informal workplace resistance groups. This concept, however, is often applied quite broadly and has been argued to include some aspects of anarcho-syndicalist strategy. We have criticised this on the basis that it lacks a clear and programmatic focus.
For us the issue is more about the context and how certain methodologies relate to both the existing class composition and the resources available to organisers. In this sense we recognise that some elements of anarcho-syndicalist strategy are almost universally applicable – being basic elements of organisational anarchism from the time of Bakunin – while also stressing the need for continual and critical investigation on the part of disciplined and organised anarchist communist militants.
Why do you describe yourself as an "association"? Is there any political significance to this term?
In very practical terms it denotes the scope of our project – a small number of comrades coming together for a specific purpose with shared goals. We felt it was important not to adopt the labels of "federation" or even "organisation" prematurely. These labels should be meaningful where they are applied.
The term "association" does, however, also have a deeper meaning within our tradition. Early Utopian socialists favoured the term "associationism" to characterise the voluntary yet still organised basis of free communism. Malatesta even went so far as to say the term should replace anarchism for anarchists.
How would you describe your orientation in respect to the Anarkismo project?
Anarkismo, and the Anarkismo groups, have been a strong influence on our theoretical development to this point. Our study of Anarkismo texts, alongside recent investigations into communisation theory, and their resonance with our own experiences are key factors in terms of both the initiation and continued development of the CA project. We feel the North American groups in particular are facing similar contexts, and answering similar questions, to ourselves. There are a number of points of principle in which we currently disagree with the Anarkismo Statement. These are issues that we hope can be clarified and debated through the international platform that Anarkismo provides.
What is the current focus/activity of the group?
As we aim to understand more concretely the present situation and how we relate to it as a movement, our focus – as an association – is to collate our investigations, ideas and analysis into a series of articles. We are currently working on two series, one of which is entitled the “Class Composition Series” and the other the “Regroupment Series”. We see this process as very much a practical one. We want to work out what activity is necessary and how best we implement that activity to achieve agreed objectives.
Within the process of Regroupment we are also aiming to participate in movement-wide public discussions with our sister Regroupment organisation Plan C. Our first talk will be at the Sheffield Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday, 23rd June. There we will discuss how we have felt the need to develop these Regroupment currents and how we see ourselves moving forward.
Your membership criteria has been criticised as being “hierarchical”. Why have you chosen to structure things in this way?
The first thing we have to make clear to people is that we are not a membership organisation per se. We do not seek to build membership as other groups do, making their membership criteria extremely simple, to the detriment of political stability. We don’t have the aim of getting as many people as possible to join us, and do not consider ourselves a big tent. We do not accept that people with varying degrees of agreement on core principles and values can become members without there being any concern for the theoretical and tactical integrity of the organisation. This is why we take potential membership seriously and why we have structured the process in the way that we have.
Our aim in terms of membership is to build a base of anarchist communist militants and organisers who share full agreement on theory and tactics and who can equitably contribute in both time and ideas to the association. We recognise that people are at varying and different levels in both knowledge and time and therefore, to safeguard the integrity of the organisation (in terms of theory and function), we have chosen to use a system of membership whereby we can ensure that militants are empowering themselves and the organisation through their activity. This structure allows us to address openly the individual needs of members, especially in terms of their relationship to the organisation and the theory we are trying to build. Having an associate membership period is the most accountable way to achieve this. Some may see this as a hierarchy of membership, but if that’s the case then it is our view that the concept of “hierarchy” is being misused. No-one in Collective Action has any authority over anyone else; no power relationship is being replicated by having full members and associate members – it is a voluntary, equitable and accountable process.
Recent years have seen the emergence of new forms of politics and political protest, such as the mobilizations around the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement; how does what CA is doing relate to that?
These issues are of interest to all revolutionaries at this point. In the past few years, on a global scale, we've seen an explosion in social unrest. In many ways these new forms of protest (although how practically new they are could be open to debate) sets the stage for the Regroupment process. Are our existing models of intervention sufficient? Are we organised along the right lines under the correct terms? Are we using all the opportunities available to us? Etc., etc. In respect to many of these, we felt the anarchist movement in the UK was lacking clear answers. This was a sentiment shared by a project emerging independently but at a very similar time to ours – "Plan C". At present we are both still working on our ideas (although we consider ourselves to be on fraternal terms with the network) so wouldn't want to make many substantive statements on this. However, we think that on a broader level it shows that this process of questioning and self-criticism is both required and emerging.