Can We Build Socialist-Anarchist Alliances?
— Ursula McTaggart
LAST SUMMER I delivered a talk on primitivist anarchism at a conference devoted to Marxist literature and culture. The participants were mostly academics engaged with Marxist criticism, and most came out of university English departments. For many in this group of self-described Marxists, my attempt at bemused critical appreciation for this admittedly problematic group of anarchists was not welcome. Anarcho-primitivists, critics insisted, are not activists, and they certainly have no place among committed Marxists. Worse, they are misanthropic, individualistic terrorists — perhaps even genocidal in their overall aims to destroy civilization.
I have no problems with ideological arguments — even fervent ones — against primitivist or “green” anarchists (the two terms are used variously by both proponents and critics). It’s true that their views on mass population loss and a return to tribal structures are anathema to socialist understandings of a just future.
The anarcho-primitivist perspective, propounded famously by theorists such as Derrick Jensen, Daniel Quinn and John Zerzan, sees civilization, not necessarily capitalism, as the core problem facing our society. Industrial civilization, they claim, has destroyed the environment and alienated humans from their ancient relationships to each other and to nature. A more perfect society would require that the earth be reduced to its “carrying capacity” of humans, who would live in small autonomous tribal groups.
Most of these theorists envision such tribes being organized according to communitarian anarchist ideals, though there are differing perspectives on this. Zerzan, in particular, earns the ire of many traditional leftists because he actively supports violent terrorist acts against a vague notion of civilization, such as those committed by Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. He also denounces both the anarchist and socialist left.
In Zerzan we can see the real dangers of anarcho-primitivism as it merges with violent right-wing strands of libertarianism and anti-government survivalism. So if these kinds of theoretical perspectives are associated with anarcho-primitivism, why, as my comrades at the Marxist conference asked, are they worth discussing at all?
Listening to Anarchists
The discussion matters because, despite the problematic theoretical perspectives that might lie at the base of anarcho-primitivist perspectives, this general world-view — if not necessarily in Zerzan’s form — is rapidly gaining traction among the young activists with whom more traditional leftists work on a daily basis. Among socialists, there has been an increasing willingness to work with the larger group of young anarchists who are associated with the labor rights tradition, and I see this as a very positive thing.
Although I think that the points of agreement between more “mainstream” anarchists and socialists need to be stressed and elaborated, I am unusual among socialists in my desire to go even further. I want to make the scandalous suggestion that socialists should be open to working with, speaking with, and taking seriously the positions of anarcho-primitivists.
This perspective comes out of my years working with United Students Against Sweatshops in the Midwest and the relationships I developed there with anarchists of all stripes. Although I know this personal example is extremely limited, I think that it nonetheless has some value in the larger context of American social movements. Perhaps in some parts of the country anarcho-primitivists or anarchists of any kind are not influential for young activists, but in my experience anarchism of all kinds is the primary ideological perspective for college students who see themselves as radicals.
What I find extremely important about contemporary anarchism is that it is flexible, especially as it relates to cooperative work with socialist movements. While socialists tend to define their ideological perspectives extensively through theoretical writing and debate, many young anarchists do not see themselves as limited by political theory. Although many of them read, write and contribute to theoretical discussions about anarchism, they don’t necessarily feel bound to the guidance of a certain set of theorists (and of course, this is true for many socialists, too).
Anarcho-primitivists, then, are no more defined by John Zerzan than socialists are by Stalin, and I think that many of them have more in common with socialist visions of a just future than a simple look at anarcho-primitivist literature would suggest. If we are unwilling to consider building alliances and working with other groups of radicals because of our understanding of theorists who fall into a similar category, we run the risk of missing out on the smart, enthusiastic contributions of a whole segment of young radicals.
Ishmael and Civilization
In my work with USAS, I discovered that anarcho-primitivism is attractive as a philosophy to many young activists because they view it as an answer to our current environmental crisis. They also see it as a way of understanding the wholesale corruption of our society without committing to the failed history of state socialism.
At one informal house party for local USASers, I was surprised to find myself in the midst of a small group discussion in which I was the only person who had not read and been inspired by Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael. Quinn’s text, though ostensibly a work of fiction, is essentially a political tract about the fundamental problems of contemporary industrial civilization spoken through the voice of a talking gorilla.
I quickly learned that Ishmael has been a seminal book for many of the young activists that I had collaborated with, and although I was not particularly moved by Quinn’s text when I read it, I do think that it offers a useful, accessible way of critiquing our society in a non-reformist manner. His analogy of civilization as a pre-Wright brothers airplane flown off a cliff — still aloft but doomed to crash — is useful because it breaks readers out of the optimism associated with a reformed capitalist liberalism, especially in the new era of Obama.
While there is certainly an important distinction to be made between civilization and capitalism, I think there is value in texts that encourage people to think outside the bounds of our contemporary social, economic, and political structures.
There are also some elements of anarcho-primitivist ideology that mirror socialist ideas fairly closely, though these young anarchists tend to use terminology that might be unfamiliar to socialists. One example is the “anti-work” philosophy propounded in a 1985 essay “The Abolition of Work” by the decidedly anti-socialist anarchist Bob Black.
Although Black ends his essay with what he sees as a swipe at Marx — “workers of the world…relax” — his anti-work philosophy actually shares quite a lot with Marxism. In Black’s ideal world, work would be unnecessary because humans would incorporate productive labor and play together as they chose. Certain kinds of production are pleasurable, he tells us, when we are not forced to perform them repetitively and at prescribed times.
Black’s analysis of work is remarkably similar to the Marxist concept of alienated labor. Workers, according to most socialists, are alienated from the objects they produce because their labor is exploited by the capitalist owners. In a liberated socialist community, workers could produce in liberated, unalienated ways. They may, as Marx said, “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, [and] criticize after dinner.”* They would not be defined by their labor — they would not be “workers” in the current sense of the term.
Although Black associates his own anti-work ideal with a hunter/gatherer lifestyle, it clearly shares some basic principles with Marx’s notion of unalienated labor.
Green Anarchism & Socialism Meetup
Sometimes anarcho-primitivists see socialism’s celebration of the worker as a celebration of work. But most labor rights groups, whether they include socialist members or not, are fairly transparent in their frustration with corporate definitions of work. The goal of the labor movement is to push back against the increasingly oppressive definitions of work that the bosses impose. And this is where anarcho-primitivists sometimes meet up with socialists.
In USAS, then, the students associated with green anarchism were committing their time to a labor rights organization, even though some of them were initially skeptical about supporting an ideology of “work” over one of “play.” Despite the fact that anarcho-primitivism as an ideology does not see the battle between labor and capital as central to the revolution, these young people who were interested in anarcho-primitivist ideas were equally concerned with labor rights.
Some of them may have made the connection between anti-work ideology and labor rights strategies, and others simply didn’t see green anarchism as an exclusive perspective or a reason to avoid labor rights activism. Although we could quibble about the distinctions between Marx’s definition of alienation and Black’s denunciation of work, the similarities were concretely productive, encouraging those with different ideologies to collaborate on a common anti-corporate project.
The connections like those we built in my USAS group are important because they allow radical ideas to multiply among young people who have grown up in an era that is highly skeptical of organized socialism. Those who are entranced by green anarchism see it as a new, visionary, and compelling world view. Socialism, on the other hand, is tainted by the examples of the Eastern bloc, China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, which not only failed at socialist democracy but also unabashedly sacrificed the environment to economic and political needs.
Their desire for something new that directly addresses the needs of environmental as well as social justice is rational, and many adherents remain ethically committed to social justice issues of all kinds. If we stick to our ideological guns, poking holes in their arguments instead of taking their activist work seriously, we will only continue in the tradition of creating a fragmented and factional left.
The anarcho-primitivist vision is problematic in its tendency to repeat romantic notions about prehistoric or tribal lifestyles (sometimes mixing up the two), and it often relies on outdated anthropological studies to insist that a pre-technological life was safer and more rewarding than it may in fact have been. Nonetheless, it envisions a sustainable ecological future and fulfilling personal lives for its adherents. And despite the sour persona of theorists like Zerzan, the younger generation of anarcho-primitivists has a sense of humor about how their perspective relates to contemporary culture.
Many anarcho-primitivists, unlike Zerzan, are less interested in getting off the grid entirely and more focused on challenging corporate offenders against the environment and/or using popular culture and technology to start discussions about alternative lifestyles and approaches to social organization.
By denouncing anarcho-primitivists (and sometimes even more mainstream anarchists) as “genocidal” or “not real activists,” we fail to recognize the ways that people who are influenced by those ideas really do contribute to radical political projects. Socialists should remember that activism is a form of labor that requires serious time commitments and sacrifices.
Although we should sometimes turn away participants who advocate unethical tactics and strategies, we should not reject enthused and active volunteers lightly, nor should we demean their perspectives even if we disagree with them. Instead, we can work together on common goals while having discussions about what kinds of overall visions we share and what elements of those visions we disagree about.
Because socialists are also considered irrational or insane by most Americans, we should also value allies who are willing to consider radical alternatives. A group of people willing to think seriously about the ethics, methods, and flavors associated with eating roadkill certainly has that quality! Moreover, their enthusiasm about alternative lifestyles, whether that includes eating roadkill, hunting for mushrooms, biking or building environmentally sound toilets, has merits.
In the wake of state socialism’s oppression and consumer goods shortages and, on the flip side, capitalism’s dire predictions of a life without oil, anarcho-primitivists revel in and celebrate alternatives — even if they romanticize indigenous peoples as they do so.
Of course, in addition to my controversial suggestion that we consider alliances with anarcho-primitivists, it goes without saying that anarcho-syndicalist traditions should also be welcome in the socialist network. Many young anarchists do not identify with green anarchism, though they are also likely to be interested in putting heavy priorities on environmentalism and do-it-yourself lifestyles in addition to anti-corporate direct action and anti-war work.
There are certainly flaws in the youth anarchist movement, and like all movements, they must address those flaws with the help of their allies. But it’s a mistake for socialists to see these flaws — even the enormous ones — as reasons to avoid building socialist-anarchist networks. Socialist groups and socialist states, after all, have a shocking history of oppression, sectarianism and wrong-headed actions, and yet those of us who believe in radical change continue to see value in a broad, non-dogmatic socialist politics.
Anarchism has a similarly flawed and promising history, and we can’t delude ourselves that young anarchists, drawn to punk and radical environmentalist subcultures as well as to political theories, will jump ship to socialism because of discussions with socialist allies. Our job should not be to convert other radicals to our cause or our organization but to highlight the similarities in our worldviews and to work toward those jointly.
We need to be open to learning as well as teaching when we discuss politics with other radicals. All radicals, after all, are asking the public to reconsider their most basic assumptions when they think about politics, and we should be committed to doing the same.
This is not a plea for us to join the anarcho-primitivist revolution, but if socialists refuse to recognize the power of anarchist ideals to young people, we will miss out altogether on the radicalism of this generation. We can insist that anarchism is fatally flawed — or we can choose to be part of this radical discussion, helping to shape it and being shaped by it.
Socialists are not the older, wiser cousins of anarchists but an equally troubled tradition that is struggling to make waves in the contemporary moment. Anarchists — even those whose ideologies clash most severely with our own — are our most enthusiastic, creative, and promising partners in revolutionary thought right now. It is a mistake to turn our backs on them or to view our own ideologies as inviolable.
What I appreciate most about anarcho-primitivists is their frequent willingness to live in urban settings or use the internet for recruitment, not only admitting but reveling in their contamination by “civilization.” These activists realize that their ideas and actions are always polluted by the realities around them, and they work from those problematic starting points. Socialists can and frequently have done the same, and I think that a solid and respectful base of collaboration between socialists and a wide range of anarchists could allow us to move forward from just such an impure but pragmatically productive place.
A Green Anarchist Reading Guide
These texts are at the core of anarcho-primitivst thought. They will, however, probably reinforce divisions between socialists and green anarchists because they highlight the differences in ideology and only rarely focus on actual activist work. Activist people, not ideological texts, are at the core of any possible alliances.
Bob Black, “The Abolition of Work”: A 1985 manifesto against the alienation of the work ethic that can be found easily online.
CrimethInc., Days of War, Nights of Love: CrimethInc. is an imagined community of anarchists (anyone can belong or act on behalf of the group simply by announcing the affiliation) who espouse an anti-work philosophy and subsist mostly by squatting, scavenging, stealing, and imitating 1930s hobo culture, especially by train-hopping. They sometimes espouse anarcho-primitivist ideals but are not invariably linked to them. This text is a collectively written CrimethInc. manifesto.
CrimethInc, Evasion: An autobiographical novel describing the scavenging lifestyle of one anonymous CrimethIncer.
Earth First! Journal: Available online, this journal demonstrates the way that green anarchist ideas can be translated into activist work.
Green Anarchy Magazine: A publication venue for some of the key names in anarcho-primitivist thought.
Derrick Jensen, Endgame: A two-volume manifesto against civilization. Using his own compelling autobiographical details, Jensen develops an extended metaphor of civilization as a domestic abuser. Although the comparison is bizarre and the analysis is overly dramatic, Jensen’s text is readable, interesting, and passionate. If any book could make you want to blow up a dam, this would be it.
Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: In Quinn’s novel, a gorilla sage instructs a human in the fundamental flaws of contemporary civilization. It’s a quick read that covers the basics of the anti-civilization perspective.
John Zerzan, Against Civilization: This is a collection of essays edited by Zerzan and including his own essay “Against Civilization.” It is among the more troubling anarcho-primitivist works, exhibiting Zerzan’s vitriolic anger against the left and his misguided evidence against civilization. Zerzan romanticizes hunter/gatherer society by citing dated or misrepresented anthropological sources and relying on literary and cultural histories that propagate racist myths of the “noble savage” who is deeply connected with nature.
A “Mainstream” Contemporary Anarchist Reading Guide
Michael Albert, Parecon: Michael Albert’s vision of a more just world is a far cry from the green anarchist one, and Albert is adamant that the extreme views of anarcho-primitivists should not become the face of the contemporary anarchist movement. Albert’s vision is much more in line with anarcho-syndicalist thought, and it may be more attractive to many socialists than to some of his fellow anarchists.
Ernesto Aguilar, ed. Our Culture, Our Resistance: People of Color Speak Out on Anarchism, Race, Class and Gender: This is an excellent collection of essays from young anarchist people of color that illustrates some ideological opportunities for alliance between socialists and anarchists. It is not available in print, but the full text can be accessed online.
Anders Corr, No Trespassing!: A critical look at the Homes Not Jails movement against homelessness and in favor of squatters’ rights in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Boston.
Lorenzo Komboa Ervin, Anarchism and the Black Revolution: This text, written by a former Black Panther, describes the attraction of anarchism to many former members of the Black Power movement who were disillusioned with the hierarchy of socialist organizations.
Jeff Ferrell: Tearing Down the Streets: Adventures in Urban Anarchy: This academic look at contemporary anarchists reveals the links between punk subculture, squatting subcultures, and activist work.
Infoshop.info: A portal for anarchist materials, announcements, and communication.
Rik Scarce, Eco-Warriors: Understanding the Radical Environmental Movement: An engaging and thorough history of radical environmentalism in the United States.
Zinelibrary.info: A collection of uploaded anarchist zines. They vary in quality, ideology, and purpose, but the site itself can provide an excellent sense of the youth anarchist culture and its range of philosophies.
Your local infoshop: Anarchists use the term “infoshop” to describe locations for distributing anarchist literature. They are usually run as non-profit bookstores, and many of them devote time and money to local or national activist causes such as prisoners’ rights or radical environmentalism. Located in nearly every big city or college town, infoshops carry a range of interesting anarchist zines, other radical literature, and community contacts for local activism.
ATC 141, July/August 2009