The Condition of the Left-Anarchist Movement in North America

An Irish Anarcho-Syndicalist shares his impression of the left-wing anarchist movement in North America. See the interview here. What he describes is pretty much the same thing that I observed during my time in that movement during the 80s. Some highlights with my comments:

In total I spoke in 44 North American cities scattered across 2 Canadian provinces and 18 US states. These were on the east and west coasts and from the east coast across the mid-west as far as Minneapolis-St Paul’s. There were lots of organizations, infoshops and organizations in formation involved on putting on the dates. Around one third were organized through the North East Federation of Anarchist Communists (NEFAC) while some local groups just organized a meeting in the one city they were active in. In the vast majority of cases I’d never met any of the organizers, everything was done over email, the entire Florida tour for instance was initated by one student who was on the Crimthinc mailing list and saw an announcement for my tour which was apparently posted there.

Strike One. NEFAC is a quasi-commie group that’s an outgrowth of the old Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation which was an outgrowth of the combining of two other primary groups, a Trotskyite sect called Revolutionary Socialist League which experienced a mass conversion to anarcho-communism and a group from Minneapolis called the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League (RABL) whose sketchy leader later converted to full-on Marxism-Leninism and, I think, became some kind of self-styled Maoist. See this critique of NEFAC from a left-anarchist perspective. Looking over NEFAC’s website, 99% of its content is just run of the mill left-wing cultural politics dressed up in hoary hard leftist rhetoric that was already a cliche in 1972. Meanwhile, Crimethinc is a group for middle class drop out white kids who aspire to be professional vagrants. The self-description of these “ex-workers” says its all: “CrimethInc. is the black market where we trade in this precious contraband. Here, the secret worlds of shoplifters, rioters, dropouts, deserters, adulterers, vandals, daydreamers—that is to say, of all of us, in those moments when, wanting more, we indulge in little revolts—converge to form gateways to new worlds where theft, cheating, warfare, boredom, and so on are simply obsolete.” The Anarchist People of Color group had the right idea of what to do with these idiots.

I think on arrival in North America I shared any of the prejudices that you find in the British anarchist movement towards North America, prejudices that are often based on a failure to try and understand conditions there. I expected a lot of North American anarchists to be liberal idiots but the reality I found was huge numbers of people doing quite solid local organizing, in particular when you considered their weak numbers and relative lack of experience. And a good few of the positions that seem a little odd from Europe make a lot more sense when you can put them in the contest of local conditions and North American history.

That’s one thing that I’ve always found particularly frustrating about the left-anarchists. They do much good work that I very much admire, such as their homeless feeding, anti-police, prisoner rights, antiwar, pro-Palestinian, civil liberties, and poverty activism. But they just can’t seem to break out of their sectarian ideological ghetto in any way that would make them relevant to the wider society. Instead, they dismiss most ordinary people as “the enemy,” even people who are as critical of the system as they are in many ways, and paint themselves into corner where they seem to almost deliberately make themselves as unappealing to other people as they can. It’s like they put themselves on top of a hill, surround themselves with an ideological moat and a banner that says, “The Revolution is Our Private Property. All Others Keep Out.”

My tour coincided with and fed into a wave of anarchist communist organizing across many of the regions I was visiting which meant I got to play some role in the formation process of five or six new organizations. But I wouldn’t overstate this, as is true of the North America in general these organizations are tiny in comparison with the population of the areas they operate in.


The IWW remains by far the largest network for anti-authoritarians in the US but it didn’t really strike me as having any real existence as a union outside of what were pretty small struggles in a couple of cities. Many social anarchists join it as a way of meeting up with like minded folk and of distancing themselves from the nuttier end of the local anarchist scene.

That’s rather depressing. The IWW was also the best thing going when I was in the left-anarchist movement, and in those days the IWW sucked. Mostly it was a collection of leftist ideologues fighting over control of the organization’s money. From what I’m told by present day insiders, the same crap is still going on, often involving the same individuals. Yawn. Lesson: Membership organizations that collect dues are a trap, particularly if they are democratically run.

Internally issues like the high rate of transience which means its hard to accumulate collective experience in any city as people are always moving in, in particular when organizational problems are encountered. Related to this is the very low level of intergenerational contact which means the movement today which is mostly under 30, if not 25 doesn’t easily benefit from the lessons learned the hard way by the movement in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Amen, say it again! Same old, same old.

Externally the North American cult of the rugged individual and the American dream not only make popular organizing difficult but seeps into the anarchist movement like a poison. Couple this with the historic success of the US state in smashing radical oppositional movements in all their forms and the current high degree of repression of anything that steps over the limited boundaries of protest allowed and you have a very difficult atmosphere in which to build anything that goes beyond lobbying. The number of police are extraordinary, their constant use against the ‘civilian population’ is striking, I saw more people being arrested on the streets in the 16 weeks of my tour as I have in nearly 40 years outside North America. And finally in the US in particular there is an extraordinary level of state infiltration and the use of agent provocateurs to tempt fresh young activists into doing stupid stuff that can lead them to very long jail sentences.

Yes. A lot of people don’t realize what a police state the USA actually is until they’ve spent time in other places where that kind of thing is less present. I really didn’t even feel it myself until I starting spending time overseas and I had been studying the issue for years by that time.

Class divisions, although sometimes camouflaged by race are very, very visible in the USA and almost as visible in Canada. Workers, particularly outside the coastal cities, are being fucked over in a very, very visible way. So ‘rugged individualism’ aside North America should be fertile ground for class struggle politics, it certainly has been in the past. Also the left does not really exist, the few far left groups that exist are much smaller than their equivalents in Britain despite the much greater population, they don’t really exist outside a few colleges in a few towns. With the exception of Canada there is no social democracy and no viable green party. In short it would not that hard for anarchists to become ‘the’ opposition.

This will be particularly true in the future as the economy crumbles and class divisions widen. I actually think America’s Jeffersonian libertarian heritage makes it the ideal country for the growth of a serious and influential anarchist movment. To the degree that this has not happened, I blame it on the anarchists more than I blame it on the culture. My prediction is that if there’s ever an enduring anarchist revolution in a Western country, it will take place in either America or in one of the southern European countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece).

The US and Britain are very similar in that most anarchists are not part of region wide organizations or often even local organizations. The region wide organizations in reality really only exist as more than isolated individuals in a very small number of cities although they often have a scattering of individual members outside of these. This means that in terms of struggle the vast majority of activity is around individual anarchists involved in local community, environmental or workplace struggle as militant individuals who happen to be anarchists rather than as part of a collective anarchist effort. From time to time there are a variety of social / political gatherings at which people can exchange experiences but which apart from the occasional spectacular event like summit protests these don’t formulate collective action. As with Britain the biggest of these are bookfairs but the sheer scale of North America means there is no single equivalent to the London bookfair but rather a range of bookfair and conference events across the continent.

Yes. This is a very accurate summary of the situation.

There is no equivalent to the anarchist influenced revolutionary unions on the European mainland. The IWW would like to be that but the reality is that its membership density is less than that of the WSM in Ireland so its more of a network of anti-authoritarian workplace militants that occasionally tries to act as a union when the opportunity arises at a particular location or at a particular time. There are no also equivalents of the sort of regional anarchist political organizations that are found in some countries that have a real presence across a large number of cities but this is a product of the small size of the movement as well as not talking the organizational question seriously enough.

Anarcho-syndicalism was an outgrowth of the historic labor movement. It belongs to history now. Anarchists need to familiarize themselves with Martin Van Creveld’s thesis on the decline of the state and John Robb’s ideas on fourth generation warfare if they want to know how to proceed.

Q. Do American anarchists really smell that much?

Nope – I only hit that smell once, in DC. There is a fringe of lifestylist types, very often students, for whom smelling is something occasionally adopted to give them kudos. It’s really not very important even if on that one occasion it was annoying. Most of the anarchists I met were ordinary folks that only differered from the people around them by their politics.

YES!!!. Get your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty anarchist!

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