In this presentation at Saint-Imier we suggested that both of these political currents – reformism and insurrectionism – come from the same source: frustration with the slow and difficult process of building a mass revolutionary movement. —- Our main point is to argue that there are, unfortunately, no short cuts to creating a new society. The only way we will overthrow capitalism and the state is through a revolutionary process that is carried out by the large majority of the working class. We are not against ‘insurrection’. Insurrection is essential as an element of Revolution. It is insurrectionism as an ideology, not insurrection as a facet of the revolutionary process that we take issue with. In other words, we critique insurrection as a short-cut to revolution.
Nor are we against ‘reforms’. Reforms make our lives a little better as working class people and build our confidence in our power. What we are against is when these processes are the only or major tactic that anarchists engage in and as such become a strategy in themselves that is to say, an actual strategy that frustrated revolutionaries resort to. They replace the strategy of the actual transformation of social relations and become the basis for ideologies that undermine social revolutionary ideology.
What do we mean by insurrectionism as an ideology or political current? On its own terms it, according to the insurrectionist Joe Black:
‘Revolution is a concrete event, it must be built daily through more modest attempts which do not have all the liberating characteristics of social revolution in the true sense. These more modest attempts are insurrections. In them the uprisings of the most exploited and excluded of society and the most politically sensitized minority opens the way to the possible involvement of an increasingly wider strata of the exploited on a flux of rebellion which could lead to revolution’.
These ‘modest attempts’ sound as though they occur spontaneously as an expression of this alliance between the most politicised and the most marginalised. There are some examples, but this is romanticism. In reality, most insurrectionary activity is too clandestine on the part of the ‘politicised’ for marginalized people to participate in. Activity is undertaken by affinity groups or ‘cells’ and are largely independent of the rest of the movement, let alone equating to an underclass.
This is because the kinds of activities that they are engaged in are necessarily illegal, and therefore must be kept secret from others. So insurrectionism is essentially a political current that uses violence, whether against people or property, to attack specific targets associated with capitalism or the state. The effect is to shock rather than mobilise exploited people.
The actions could take the form of smashing an ATM or a window of MacDonald’s, or kneecapping a politician or capitalist. It is not the actions themselves that make the current insurrectionists but that fact that these actions are elevated to being more than a tactic. Communiques are issued using very vivid and passionate language that expresses struggle as something personally liberating, but there is little thought as to how the action fits in with an overall collective strategy, because there is no other strategy.
Why are some anarchists attracted to insurrectionism?
It offers not just action against the state and capital but retribution. In the book Black Flame the authors cite Galleani as one of the first to articulate these ideas in c.1920. Galleani opposed ‘partial victories’ by the class or ‘immediate and partial improvements, that consent to the existing economic system’. We consider that this misunderstands the value of ‘partial improvements/victory’ in class struggle.
Insurrectionists will accuse other anarchists of being dull and bureaucratic. The Informal Anarchist Federation of Italy’s Giuseppe Dondoglio Antolini says that the informal cells do not ‘seek to establish (nor much less strengthen) any centralized and bureaucratic ‘federation’. ‘They will also accuse us of being cowardly- of not being willing to engage in direct violent confrontation with the state and capitalism now. They say you need to be willing to sacrifice yourself. The informals’ Olga Cell say in their communiqué on the shooting of Adolfini, ‘If we were realists we would not take on such risks’, and on organised anarchists, ‘the only compass guiding your action is the penal code. (You are) willing to risk only up to a point… This is the only way we can get anywhere now – not having to wait for the slow build up of a mass movement – not wasting time in what are seen as reformist struggles or seeking ‘social consensus’ (Olga cell comminqué).
We identify two currents amongst modern insurrectionists, in Britain at least. Some feel they are inspiring people- taking action against capitalism and the state that may galvanise others to take action. This was most prevalent in the 1970s and 80s amongst ‘illegalists’, with inspirations from Bonanno etc. Such insurrectionism may be the result of failures of working class movements to succeed. They are an attempt to ‘kick-start’ a more generalized uprising.
Other insurrectionists seem more concerned about the effect of the action on themselves – the fact that it makes them feel empowered. This feeling of empowerment seems self-indulgent to us, as more important than the actual outcome. This part of the current is not so interested in inspiring a mass movement. They are ‘anti-mass’ or even ‘anti-civ(ilisation)’ (an American Individualist concept) in fact they have no faith in the willingness/ability of the working class to ever organise effective action.
Insurrection as advocated by ‘Feral Faun’ and ‘Michele Fabiani’ is explicitly individualistic. It harks back to the days when anarchists had no choice but to expropriate – to steal – from the middle class and ruling class in order to survive, like the Bonnot gang and others. But in itself this will almost certainly not resonate with working class people.
Other reasons why we aren’t insurrectionists?
There are some other key problems with insurrectionism. Setting aside the question of violence against people, even attacks on objects or property are only worth doing if they are meaningful to the working class and if we can show them to be effective. Action has to fit into a wider, experience-based strategy for social change. Working class people need to feel involved in that process of change and not feel that they are the targets of it. Empowerment of the individual is important but we have to change ourselves and our social relationships as well. Our activity has to prefigure a better world – we have to express the values and practice of that anarchist society through our action now.
In more detail then…
• About effective targets. Many of the targets are meaningless to ordinary workers. Why attack a railway network or an ATM, in some examples from Britain? Even with a communiqué this does not resonate with what is wrong in people’s lives. Certainly there is no consensus in the European working class at least (we can’t speak outside of the societies we know) for violence against people (unless perhaps this is against fascists, cops or scabs). There is certainly no consensus for violence against bosses or politicians at present. This may not worry insurrectionists but it worries us, even though it is the case that the working class takes on moral values about violence against people from the state and the church. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have ethics ourselves about violence. We want to use as little of it as possible. But targeting key public figures for violence is to find a symbolic target. The balance of forces does not change if a cop or industrialist is killed. In the 1990 preface to the Australian text ‘You Can’t Blow up a Social Relationship’ (of 1979), Chaz Bufe says ‘The total collapse of this society would give no guarantees about what replaced it’. Even if it did not lead to repression, we cannot achieve a social revolution by frightening people and endangering workers like firemen and cleaners who might get hurt if some symbolic target is firebombed. This risk makes it unacceptable to us in the
current political climate.
• About learning lessons. Many insurrectionists don’t understand the complex nature of the events leading up to a revolutionary moment. History is not linear. There are all sorts of events/actions/ideas, some apparently mundane, that lead up to the more visible events and help things come to a head, even where they are about reformist issues.
• About strategy – Insurrectionists have no overall strategy that can adapt through consideration of the current political climate. It is not one embedded in the wider working class movement. There is no strategy for creating a new society which must be built from the base up and involve a mass movement. This points to weak ideology. Insurrectionism places the activist and affinity group above the class. As such it is substitutionist.
• About communicating with the working class. Many insurrectionists are dismissive of ordinary people and call them ‘sheeple’. ‘Joe Black’ goes on to say that insurrectionists are part of this group of most exploited and marginalised. To us this is a joke. Useful ideas that might emerge out of these moments are not spread because there is usually no link to the wider class and no real link with the most marginalised, just an ideological identification with them. Insurrectionists are reliant on the bourgeois mass media. Without the media they would be nothing because no one would know about them. Actions that are based on real struggles of the working class have meaning and significance to those who are involved, and do not need the bourgeois media to spread them.
• About the individual. Having the subjective feeling of being empowered is not the same as actually being empowered. Even if there are moments of actual empowerment, they are meaningless if they are not part of an overall strategy that links up with others. It is more important that the working class feels empowered. As individuals we have to change in order for an anarchist society to be possible. We can only build slowly the idea that a self-managed society is the most beneficial society for us as individuals as well as a class.
• About the future society. We are prefiguring the future society – this takes time e.g. connecting directly and openly with people in all sorts of contexts, not secretively. Chaz Bufe also notes that ‘Means determine ends. The use of horrifying means guarantees horrifying ends’. As he says:
‘The job for revolutionaries is not to take up the gun but to engage in the long, hard work of publicising an understanding of this society. We must build a movement which links the many problems and issues people face with the need for revolutionary change, which attacks all pseudo-solutions – both individual and social – offered within this society which seeks to demystify those solutions offered by the authoritarian left and instead to place the total emphasis on the need for self-activity and self-organisation on the part of those people willing to take up issues’.
When and why do we support insurrection as a tactic?
Direct action is an important tactic for social anarchists. This has been the case since the formation of our movement. Kropotkin said that ‘It is the risen people who are the real agent and not the working class organised in (Capitalist production) and seeking to assert itself as labour power, as a more rational industrial body or social brain than the employers). Malatesta said, ‘The insurrectional fact, destined to affirm socialist principles by deed, is the most efficacious means of propaganda’. But both were advocating insurrectionary uprisings as opposed to reformism. They were not thinking of a small highly politicised minority as either starting or central to this process. Their view was that anarchists should be involved when insurrections do take place and supportive of these, not least in terms of solidarity if repression follows. But they should do this as part of the working class. It will be the majority that rises up in an ultimately effective insurrection.
These actions must, however, be thoroughly thought through and not carried out just to make the individuals carrying them out to feel better. The action must be part of an overall strategy and linked to a wider working class movement. The consequences of carrying out the actions must also be considered as it is not just about a few individuals willing to sacrifice themselves – there may be wider consequences. Timing is vital. The working class will need to defend itself against the violence of the state both when and before the revolutionary event happens, and anarchist propaganda cannot shy away from this. Anarchists have to win this argument in their propaganda and involvement in the class struggle – the hard way, in other words. Social anarchists believe that a new society will be created by the mass of the working class. The struggles in which we are engaged now are part of the process of preparing us both for the moment of revolution and, equally importantly, the difficult task of constructing an anarchist communist society. Within this overall strategy there will be moments of insurrection, but these are part of an altogether more complex process of social transformation.
Not the opposite of insurrectionism but another manifestation of the impatience and frustration of wanting change now!
• What do we mean by reformism?
There are a number of elements to the ideology of reformism. Full-blown reformism is a feature of organisations like trade unions and political parties. However, elements of reformism exist within currents that see themselves as revolutionary anarchists.
Engaging in the struggle for reform and believing that this is the end in itself. A belief that we can achieve a new society through the gradual winning of reforms. Taking positions in political, economic and social structures and believing that you are creating a space for revolutionary activity. Substituting yourself for the masses.
• How is reformism manifested in the anarchist movement itself?
This could include organizational structure, role in trade unions, single issue campaigns, support for national liberation etc.
Anarchist organisations are often subjected to the pull of reformism. This is because of the difficulty of being part of wider working class struggles and also because of the difficulties inherent in anarchist methods of organising and decision-making. Quite rightly, social anarchists do not want to be isolated from the wider working class movement and this necessitates being involved in reformist organisations and campaigns such as trade unions and support for the struggles against oppression around the world. However, once involved, the new role often takes over and instead of the individual being kept from ‘corruption’ by being part of a solidly revolutionary anarchist movement, the individuals begin to change their views on what anarchism is and affect the politics of the organisation that they are in or else become dissatisfied and want to create a new organisation that can accommodate their new
The end result is an anarchist political organisation in which the members are heavily implicated in union structures and/or support for national liberation struggles.
The other aspect of reformism comes with views on the organisational structures. Trying to create revolutionary anarchist structures is both time-consuming and painful. As we are trying to prefigure the new society we want to maximise participation and not have a system where decision-making responsibility is handed over to a small group of people in the name of being more effective. This can be seen in support for simple majority voting. Though we in the AF do not reject the principle of voting, the aim of decision-making should be consensus, in which the group or organisation. This can be very time-consuming as it involves a lot of discussion. Understandably, some anarchists become frustrated and want to be more efficient. Simple majority voting with limited discussion, committees of ‘leaders’ who make decisions about policies and actions, are all aspects of this frustration. Unfortunately such structures lead to a reformist outlook- a belief in representative democracy and the abandonment of any attempt to actually revolutionise common decision-making processes.
• How is reformism a pull for individuals? What causes people to leave the anarchist movement and move towards reformist options?
Over the years countless numbers of revolutionary anarchists have left the movement and expressly adopted reformism. Part of the reason for this might be the reformist nature of some anarchist politics as well as other factors. One of the main reasons for this (like with the insurrectionists) is losing patience with the slow progress made towards building a mass working class movement. In addition, people have been involved in the struggle for reforms as anarchist, and in the process become overly focused on winning the reforms and losing sight of the actual end of these struggles. Living under capitalism, it is understandable that people want to win some concessions and make life better in the here and now. They get involved in single issue campaigns or trade unions as anarchists and increasingly get entangled by these campaigns/organisations and lose contact with the anarchist movement. This is understandable considering the lack of seriousness amongst many anarchists- posing about (like the insurrectionists) and not involved in serious struggle. Those attracted to reformism often mention the fact that they are at long last engaging with ‘real’ working class people.
• Why we reject reformism?
We reject both kinds of reformism for a number of reasons:
• It’s not about building a culture of resistance, not about empowering people but only of being efficient or winning some demand.
• The process of what takes place- the empowering of working class people, the building up of skills and confidence- is as important as winning some reform. This is especially true as capitalism and the state are very capable of incorporating any reform or taking back any concessions made. Therefore, it is vital that the power of the working class has developed so it can continue to fight. If you give up your power to representatives or leaders of any kind, then the movement as a whole is weakened.
• The non-anarchist reformists have no perception that the winning of the reform is only one small step and not the end in itself. The focus is on fixing a few things- of getting £9.00 an hour rather than £6.00- rather than seeing this as the end in itself.
• There are no short-cuts. We are about building a culture of resistance and preparing for a complete transformation of society. The ends do not justify the means.
• Why do we support campaigns for reforms as a tactic?
The struggle for individual reforms- higher wages, against cuts etc- is an important part of building a mass revolutionary movement. In addition, it is important in itself to improve people’s conditions in the here and now. However, this can only be done within a context of a long-term revolutionary vision of a new society. Otherwise, individuals get tangled up in the actual reformist struggle- never to escape. Or, individuals think that by them taking positions or by having more ‘efficient’ organisational structures they will be better placed to win reforms, forgetting that they are losing the basic anarchist principles in the process.