An Interview with Keith Preston

This is an interview I recently gave to a journalist who is writing a book on political undercurrents in the U.S.

Can you tell me a little bit about the American Revolutionary Vanguard and what it stands for?

American Revolutionary Vanguard was founded in the late 1990s by a coalition of anarchists in the North American anarchist movement who wished to pursue a different direction from what was the norm among anarchists in North America at the time. The rest of the anarchist movement was usually oriented towards promoting one of three perspectives: countercultural lifestyle concerns (ranging from veganism to alternative sexuality to squatting to punk music and bicycling), or a kind of clichéd ultra-leftism of the kind that had been developed by Marxist-Leninist and Maoist tendencies within the New Left (such as an emphasis on “white skin privilege” and radical feminism), or old-guard anarcho-syndicalism that had been influenced by early twentieth century syndicalist tendencies such as the Industrial Workers of the World.

We wished to pursue an entirely new direction which would be oriented towards uniting all forms of anarchist, decentralist, libertarian, anti-state, and anti-authoritarian thought around the common purpose of abolishing the state and decentralizing power towards the level of the natural community, and forging a society-wide consensus for this purpose. Much of what we did at the time was a bit tongue in cheek as well. For example, our original name, American Revolutionary Vanguard, doesn’t really mean anything. The word “vanguard” is something of a taboo in anarchist circles because of its association with the Marxist-Leninist idea of the “vanguard party.” So we always claimed we were trying to reclaim the good name of the word “vanguard.” Ironically, back then many in the anarchist milieu were suspicious of us and thought we were Communists, but now we’re more likely to be mislabeled as fascists. But the original purpose of American Revolutionary Vanguard was the same as it is now: the formation of an anti-state front.

Can you explain a bit about pan-secessionism and what it means to your philosophy?

Pan-secessionism is a tactical concept that involves the actual application of our philosophy to real world political events. Simply put, our goal is for smaller political and economic units to secede from larger ones. State and provinces would secede from national governments, and cities and communities would secede from states and provinces, all the way down to the neighborhood level. “Power to the neighborhoods” is a common slogan we like to use towards this purpose. Presumably, there could be a parallel economic secession where local and regional branches of industries and managerial units secede and begin to practice autonomy and self-management as well. The concept of pan-secessionism has its roots in two basic ideas. One is the idea of political secession in the form of regional or local autonomist movements such as those currently found in Scotland, the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain, in multiple regions of the US, in Palestine, Tibet, Chechnya and many other places. In the United States, this is a particularly relevant concept given that the United States was essentially founded as a secession of the original thirteen colonies from the British monarchy.

The other idea which has influenced the concept of pan-secession is the old anarchist idea of the “general strike.” The notion behind the general strike is that workers establish control over production by means of a mass strike that turns into a popular revolution.

The old anarcho-syndicalist labor organizations like the IWW and the IWA used to advocate for this idea in the era of classical anarchism.  However, the concept of pan-secessionism takes this idea much further and advocates a general strike not just in the industrial sectors, but a popular strike against the state and its institutions altogether in the form of regional and local secession, a labor strike, a tax strike, a tenants’ strike, a students’ strike, and a military strike, in such a way that ruling class institutions are completely undermined.

It certain segments of our population it is cool to say that one is an anarchist. I know some people that call themselves “anarchists” but yet pay their taxes, follow established laws, and generally do what the government tells them to do. Is it possible to be an anarchist and also follow the established rules of one’s government?

Anarchism is a philosophy that advocates for the abolition of the state, not a prescription for how one should live within the context of a state-saturated society. Some anarchists choose the route of becoming what have been called “illegalists” and act in open defiance of the state and its laws and commands. Others prefer to live within the system and work for more piecemeal reforms, or simply try to obtain the maximum degree of individual or collective self-sufficiency possible given the circumstances. No one way is the correct way. Instead, it is best for there to be different kinds of anarchists working to undermine the state in many different ways. There are many different ways in which anarchists go about fighting the state. At present, some anarchists in the Kurdish region have formed militias that are involved in direct armed resistance to ISIS and have formed a quasi-anarchist community in Rojava. Other types of anarchists have formed intentional nations like Liberland, and others are working through unconventional political parties like the Pirate Party, and still others are engaged in direction action around such concerns as environmental preservation. The best approach for anarchists to take towards these questions would be to let a thousand flowers bloom.

It is obvious to most thinking people that our current system is way too wrong to last, but still the vast majority of people do not take anarchy seriously. What are today’s anarchists doing wrong? What needs to happen to change that? Is there a place for violence?

Most people are not anarchists because anarchists have not yet succeed at the task of educating others about anarchism to the degree necessary for a popular consensus in favor of anarchism to develop. Our goal should be to grow all forms of resistance until these collectively become a political majority, and then a super-majority, along with the overarching strategic concept of pan-secession and other related ideas. But this is something that takes a great deal of time, and patience is very much in order. The idea that the emperor is to be worshipped as a sun-god did not disappear overnight, nor did the idea of divine right of kings. The false abstractions that are used to justify modern states will not disappear immediately either. However, we as anarchists should be working to undermine and destroy the false pieties that are used to uphold modern states such as the idea of the social contract, the idea that the state is somehow a protector of natural rights or human rights, the idea that the state is somehow based or could ever be based on the idea of popular sovereignty or some kind of mythical general will, and the idea that a mere 51% vote legitimizes whatever a particular state wishes to do.

Instead, we need to promote recognition of the fact that the state is merely a “robber band write large” as St. Augustine said over 1500 years ago. The purpose of the state is to monopolize territory, control resources, exploit subjects, protect an artificially privileged ruling class, and expand its own power. Other claims on behalf of the state are merely evasion and obfuscation. It might be said that the state is merely a mafia with a flag, and a far more insidious institution than the mafia given the much greater level of destructiveness and deceptiveness.  Our ambition as anarchists should be to develop a social consensus towards the viewpoint that the state is no more legitimate than slavery or the divine right of kings and other such ills that existed in the past.

As for what today’s anarchists are doing wrong, many anarchists have put the proverbial cart before the horse in the sense that their primary focus is on many of things that we decided were a distraction from the building of a social consensus towards anarchism when we started American Revolutionary Vanguard nearly twenty years ago. Many anarchists have allowed themselves to become absorbed by so-called “progressivism” and consequently are no more effective at challenging the legitimacy of the state than ordinary political tendencies that accept the state as a matter of principle or presumption. Many anarchists are merely activists around popular social issues, or promoting countercultural lifestyles, and consequently have lost sight of the wider picture that involves the need to forge a consensus towards the abolition of the state.

An excess of sectarianism also exists among anarchists. The anarchist movement is largely divided into multiple hyphenated tendencies such as anarcho-communism, anarcho-syndicalism, anarcha-feminism, anarcho-primitivism, anarcho-collectivism, anarcho-capitalism, egoist anarchism, and many, many other tendencies. It would be preferable for anarchists to attempt to find ways to move past these sectarian ideas and find common principles around which anarchists can unite, and common issues through which anarchists can broaden their appeal to larger numbers of people. As for the question of violence, that is a subject on which anarchists do not agree and have never agreed. In the past, there have been anarchists who used terrorist methods to advance their ideals, and other anarchists who are pacifists. I lean towards the idea that different kinds of tactics are appropriate or necessary in different kinds of circumstances.

Another word other than anarchy that gets thrown around without people knowing what it means is “fascist.” I have read a few articles that claimed your pan-secessionism tends towards fascism and white nationalism, can you shed any light on that?

Fascism is a concept that has absolutely nothing to do with either anarchism as a political theory, or pan-secessionism as an anarchist tactic. Fascism is an idea which proclaims “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” which is how fascism was described by its founder, Benito Mussolini. Clearly, this is the polar opposite idea of anarchism which seeks to abolish the state. Fascism and Nazism are totalitarian ideologies of the Right just as Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, Pol Potism and Kim’s Juche Idea are totalitarian ideologies of the Left. But anarchism stands resolutely opposed not only to totalitarian manifestations of the state but to the state in any of its manifestations.

The concept of nationalism is also viewed with suspicion by anarchists because historically nationalism has been used to justify statist oppression, imperialism and inter-state warfare, and nationalism continues to be used for these purposes in some instances. However, there are also people who call themselves anarcho-nationalists, tribal-anarchists or national-anarchists who will affirm the legitimacy of nations, regions, and communities based on a shared culture, language, ethnicity, heritage or religion while denying the legitimacy of the state or the exploitation and cooptation of these things by the state. An example is the way in which the Native American and First Nations tribes, the Australian aboriginals, the Kurds, Tibetans, and many other identifiable population groups are nations but not a state. An even bigger controversy among anarchists involves the idea of whether European or Caucasian ethnic groups can have legitimate claims to identities of these kinds given the past legacy of the European states in perpetrating colonialism, imperialism, the slave trade, ethnic cleansing of indigenous people, apartheid, world wars, and the Holocaust.

While there is strong disagreement among anarchists on this question, I hold to the view that anarchism should recognize the principles of self-determination for all, including all ethnic groups, cultures, religions, nationalities, regions, and communities, and for people of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and lifestyles. There are also anarchist tendencies representing black or African-American anarchists, Zapatista anarchists, native or indigenous anarchists, Buddhist anarchists, Christian anarchists, pagan anarchists, and Islamic anarchists. For this reason, anarchists should give those anarchists who identify with some kind of European ethnicity, culture or religion their seat at the table as well. This the perspective that I believe is most compatible with the ideals of anarchism as a movement that stands in opposition to statism, capitalism, imperialism, aggressive war,  and authoritarianism, and which upholds individual liberty, decentralism, voluntarism, federalism, mutual aid, cooperativism, syndicalism, communitarianism, pluralism, human scale institutions, intellectual freedom, free inquiry, free speech, and freedom of association.



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