Sunday 30 July 2017

The neo-Makhnovist revolutionary project in Ukraine (2014)

RKAS-NM demonstration

The civil war precipitated in 2014 by a revanchist, imperialist Russia in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – ironically once part of the Makhnovist revolutionary heartland – and the mobilisation there of openly neo-fascist armed forces has raised the critical question of how the Ukrainian anarchist synthesist and platformist formations have responded to the crisis. Despite intense KGB repression, the anarchist movement in the USSR and its colonies and satellite states began reviving underground in the 1970s, gathered momentum as protests escalated in the late 1980s, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and lost its former colonies including the Ukraine, that collapse precipitated a flowering of anarchist organising. However, the promise of glasnost for a freer society has been tarnished by what seems to be an inexorable rightward drift of the Russian state and society driven by the old KGB elite in cahoots with robber-baron oligarchs and reactionary politicians. This has been reflected socially in the rise of neo-fascist, neo-Stalinist and national-bolshevik movements, intense racism against ethnic non-Russians, homophobia and other plagues. Not least, the Russian state has moved to bloodily suppress secessionist movements (as its predecessor state had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), especially with the Chechen Wars of 1994-1996 and of 1999-2000. In a private conversation in 2005, a Russian intelligence agent told me in no uncertain terms that Russia under former KGB lieutenant-colonel Vladimir Putin fully intended to recover all of its lost colonies, a political position termed revanchism.

Against this backdrop, the anarchist movement in the former USSR has had a hell of a time fighting for its existence. Today, probably the largest – though synthesist – new anarchist organisation in the former Soviet Empire is the Autonomous Action (AD) network, which by 2010 had sections or at least members in the cities of Belorechensk, Chelyabinsk, Irkutsk, Izhevsk, Kaliningrad, Kazimov, Kolomna, Krasnodar, Moscow, Murmansk, Novgorod, Novorossisk, Rostov-on-Don, St Petersburg, Sochi, Tyumen, Volgograd, Voronezh, Yaroslavl, and Yoshkar. There is also an AD section in Armenia (the Autonomous Action - "Breakthrough" Group, AD-GP) and supporter groups in Belarus, Lithuania, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. The Revolutionary Union of Anarcho-Communists (AKRU) and other groups in the Moscow area joined the AD in 1991. In south Russia in 2003, the more hardline Federation of Anarcho-Communists (FAK) was founded, apparently from an AD split, in the cities of Rostov-on-Don, Taganrog, Krasnodar and Stavropol, with the journal Protest at its mouthpiece. There are also unaffiliated anarcho-syndicalist unions springing up in places like Kazakstan such as the Alma Ata Anarchist Alliance (AAAA) and Libertarian Almaty, in Siberia such as the Siberian Confederation of Labour (SKT), which split from the KRAS in 1995 with the aid of the Swedish Central Workers’ Organisation (SAC), growing to 6,000 members by the year 2000, and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Confederation of Irkutsk (ASKI) founded in 2007, and in Ukraine, the Anarchist Federation of Eastern Ukraine (AFEU), and the Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists – “N.I. Makhno” (RKAS), which was founded in 1994 and had attained 2,000 members by the year 2000; the SKT and the RKAS supported the independent revolutionary International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) founded in Madrid in 2001, which was the seedbed of the project established by ILS member organisations in 2003. 

The neo-Makhnovist RKAS continued to grow, though its organisational discipline horrified synthesist anarchists such as those from the declining anarcho-syndicalist International Workers’ Association (IWA), one of whose correspondents characterises it as a “platformist party and psychosect” . But the critique is revealing in that it makes it obvious that the organisational practice of the RKAS derives directly from the historical Makhnovist movement, the 1918-1921 Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU in its Cyrillic acronym). For example, the RKAS established  “a small General Confederation of Labour of Anarcho-syndicalists” (CGT-AU), formed defensive ideological-paramilitary Black Guard squads, trained in martial arts, and co-ordinated its activities via an Organisational Bureau (Orgbureau): “The structure of the Orgbureau includes the Secretary General and his deputy, the international secretary, the editor of the central press organ (the newspaper Anarchy), the commander of the ‘party’ militia - the Black Guard, the finance director, the Head of [the] Media Centre of RKAS and the representative of [the] ‘workers’’ union created by RKAS.” Thus the Orgbureau performs roughly the same function as did the RPAU’s Military-Revolutionary Soviet, and is linked to the anarcho-syndicalist CGT-AU and RKAS co-operatives in Donetsk and Kiev (the potential seedbeds of future soviets), while the Black Guard in turn has its own territorial unit and command structure: the writer quotes RKAS Secretary General Sergei “Samurai” Shevchenko as stating “the creation of self-defence force organization (something like a ‘party’ militia) is a very important area of our organic development. Thus the Black Guard was conceived as a force ([a] federation of territorial units in sections with a common leading staff) on the basis of ideology, the constant training of personal combat skills of fighters and teamwork... as well as a consistent practice in street conditions.” This appears to replicate the military unit structure and General Staff (Shtarm) of the RPAU. 

And in echo of the RPAU’s Culture and Propaganda Soviet, the KultProSoviet, the RKAS has its own Anarchist School and its own paper for political education and propaganda – Shevchenko explicitly states the organisation’s objective of creating “a communal-family subculture”: the RKAS Congress of 2010 stated: “One of our main objectives is to create RKAS's own subculture of anarcho-syndicalism, based on the principles of brotherhood, unity and clanism”; the IWA critic seems to hint that such “clanism” means ethnocentrism, but the original Makhnovists also drew on libertarian elements of the clan traditions of both Zaporizhzhian peasants and of the Don Cossacks to legitimise their movement. The claim that RKAS’ ranks include a confused melange of ‘counterculturalists,’ ‘insurrectionalists,’ adherents of ‘anarcho-capitalism’ and even nationalists” would seem improbable, given its stress on internal ideological coherence; and the only proof of the presence of “nationalists” in its ranks offered is a single member seen wearing a T-shirt saying “I am Russian,” which is surely tolerable for an ethnic minority within a Ukrainian-majority movement. Somewhat like the disciplinary functions of the RPAU’s Commission for Anti-Makhnovist Activities (KAD), the RKAS also has its “Arbitral Tribunal” which arbitrates on members accused of breaking the organisation’s codes. Some of this may be considered organisational overbuild, but with RKAS sections and supporters in Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia, and with anarchist-communism having prefigurative praxis at its heart, it would seem unduly harsh to criticise the RKAS for borrowing their organisational structure directly from the most successful libertarian communist mass movement of their country’s history.

In 2011, the Donetsk city sections of the RKAS split away to form what they called the International Union of Anarchists (MSA), which today claims organised “Local Council” sections in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Spain, and Israel/Palestine, and links to organisations and individuals in Germany, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, France, Sweden, Tunisia and Syria . The MSA is mistakenly viewed by the IWA writer as an RKAS initiative, rather than a splinter and is criticised as an attempt to establish a “rival international” but there is nothing in anarchist ethics that prevents the development of parallel structures based on free association and federalism. According to its website, the MSA’s stated goal is the elimination of the state, hired labor, inequality, and private property, along with the widespread replacement of commodity-money relations with relations based upon principles of mutual equality and fraternity. This is to be achieved through the collaborative planning of self-managing teams of workers, tenants and consumers, along with the implementation of business activities in accordance with the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs in the economic empowerment of society...”. 

The MSA’s founding Memorandum of Association (2011) states that, “Denying the possibility of anarcho-communist revolution in single separated countries, and for the further coordination of actions of anarchistic organisations, we create the MSA.” The founding organisations such as RKAS “act due to their own memorandums, taking into account historically based sociologically-cultural traits” but are co-ordinated by a “Council” which reviews applications for membership (all active members have to be in consensus about a new member joining). “In case of need, the Council initiates preparations, discussions and approves decisions, actions, documents (programmes, memorandums, methodical recommendations), publishing and other kinds of activity, which are universal inside of MSA and made by all participating organisations. All controversial cases must be solved by negotiations; arbitration is possible by demand.” The MSA Programme, posted online in April 2014, aims at “an activity directed at creating a self-governing social system based on freedom, equality and cooperation. The purpose of [the UIA] assumes the destruction of the state, statism, social hierarchy, coercive (administrative) powers, the existing capitalist system, and all types of discrimination, coercion and exploitation. We recognise the preparation and implementation of a social revolution based on anarchist doctrine as means of achieving this goal.” [Texts slightly edited for clarity – Michael Schmidt]. 

Shevchenko's take on the MSA splinter is naturally severe, claiming that using the excuse of “anti-authoritarianism,” the splinter group “freed themselves from the 'dictatorship of the RKAS Organisational Bureau,' which had made them go to mines and factories and distribute [the RKAS] Anarchy newspaper, deal with trade unions and cooperatives, and build a well-disciplined Black Guard, [and] freed themselves from RKAS conference decisions, which put forth really constructive socio political tasks...”  He claimed by June 2014 the anti-organisationists had effectively disappeared: "... where are all these new, unimaginable anti-authoritarian units, the creators of which weakened RKAS systematically and broke the anarchist movement into pieces by their arrival, thus not giving it any opportunity to organise itself into a strong, mass political organisation? Are they still sticking stickers, drawing graffiti no one wants, playing football and going to concerts?... This is the way naughty children behave, arranging holidays of disobedience and riots for the sake of their petty insults and games.... the old illnesses of being anti-organisational, destructive and irresponsible, which are brought to the level of a virtue and which undermine any constructive work. Anarchists, due to such absolutely absurd mistakes, have thus failed to establish the organisation. And all the attempts to establish the organisation within the framework of the RKAS project have given rise to a real Crusade against 'authoritarianism and extremism'. Both the situation in February 2013 and the current one have clearly shown all the helplessness of that amorphous form of infantile, subcultural anarchism, no matter what name it gave itself in the face of real historical events."

The IWA writer notes that the RKAS Congress of 2011 “decided to solve the questions about the division of responsibilities along the way, through horizontal and vertical connections within the organisation”: this is upheld as being evidence of “vertical structures” in the organisation, but at most it points to a very Makhnovist-like blend of vertical linkages where needed (military command-and-control), and horizontal linkages where needed (the submission of the militia to broader formations). In line with this, Shevchenko’s vision of a post-revolutionary society recognises the need for administrative and educational functions: “Do you think, there will be no teachers, directors or leading managers in an anarchist society? Just the vector of relations will change. Power over other people will be substituted by regulation of processes, and privileges will be replaced by a voluntary responsibility.” The RKAS practice of “entryism” into and recruiting among the “reformist-bureaucratic Independent Trade Union of Miners,” or the “anarcho-capitalist” Union of Anarchists of Ukraine (SAU), a weird registered political party that contests elections, is obviously controversial, but is hardly an unknown syndicalist tactic, that of capturing members of mainstream organisations for the revolution – and by the early 2000s, RKAS militants lead strike committees and workers’ councils on the mines of the Donetz Basin as their forebears had done during the Ukrainian Revolution. The organisation went through a slump in 2004 but was reformed with vigour in 2007, publishing a Programme of the RKAS  which echoed the famous IWW Preamble in its recognition of only two, mutually hostile, classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, though the boundaries between them "are not resistant (hereditary) and clearly drawn" – the results of which class structure was the "inequality of men in the actual possibilities to satisfy their needs (material and spiritual); [that] the vast majority of people can have no influence on decisions that touch on the main areas of private and social life; [and] the inevitability of wars, economic crises, unemployment, etc., etc," 

"So, the real and only alternative to the state-capitalist order is the stateless socialist society," which the RKAS defined as "a Soviet order (= Soviet system) according to our expectations [that] is no power of any party, not a 'party parliament', but the most perfect constructive form of stateless socialist self-management, which practical implementation took place in the experience of the Makhnovist movement (1918-1921) and the Spanish Revolution (1936-1939). Meetings of residents and factory workers freely choose their environment, their institutions of territorial and economic self-management – Councils – as exclusively technical and coordinating bodies, whose members in its activities, in the decisions of the running of meetings of their constituents, are accountable towards them, all privileges are stripped away and representatives may be recalled at any time and replaced. The inner life of each such territorial and economic unit is determined solely by its participants. Representatives of local Councils unite in a City Council or – in rural districts – in an economic County Council. In the scope of an area these Councils form a Federation; the union of Federations formed on the territory of the whole country, the national Confederation. The duties of the county, city, regional and national associations of Councils consist in the coordination of economic and social life in the necessary questions – primarily the planning and realisation of the national distribution of raw materials, energy, finished products, etc. The decisions of these associations are developed due to free agreements of representatives, representing the union of the local units; they affect only common problems. The economy of socialism, which is managed in the interests of all members of society, and not the owner and not even the collective farm level, must say goodbye to the chaotic, disorganised economy of capitalism, of its aspirations to profit at any cost, with its undue waste of forces and resources, including competition." This is classic anarchist horizontal federalism, run on directly democratic principles, and RKAS proposed to achieve this vision through a conventional Platformist focus on specific anarchist organisations engaging in daily activities acting as a revolutionary gymnasium, through which immediate gains build class confidence and capacity for self-management and the ultimate, transformative "Social Revolution," which it defined as a mass proletarian expropriation of the state and capital, rejecting any transitional state or "dictatorship of the proletariat" in favour of self-managing society in their own right.

The nameless IWA correspondent went further in their accusations, however, reporting that public debates took place between RKAS militants and “neo-fascists” in the city of Voronezh, adding the news of the “participation of its [RKAS] representatives [in the] Kiev Congress of National-‘Communists’ and National-‘Anarchists’ in the summer of 2012”. But this may merely demonstrate that RKAS was unafraid to debate its positions with all political factions in order to win the battle of ideas and create militants – in its Programme, the RKAS position was explicit, that its militants undertook to "fight against nationalism in all its manifestations, against fascism, militarism, clericalism and other anti-human movements and phenomena." Hardly the position of an organisation friendly to national-Bolshevism or national-anarchism. Again, let’s not forget that the original Makhnovists, while driven by specific anarchist-communist cores, were a hetereogenous organisation of the revolutionary left: and here is perhaps the only confusion in their structure, between mimicking Makno’s specifically anarchist-communist GAK organisation of tendency, and the mixed organisation of class of the Makhnovists themselves. 

The most severe test of the modern Ukrainian anarchist movement's tactics, strategies and politics came in 2014 with the invasion of the Crimea by Russian forces, cloaked as "separatists" who wanted reunification with Russia, and the south-east of the country's descent into a low-level civil war as a result. The descent of parts of Ukraine into fratricidal war was precipitated by massed public demonstrations in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital Kiev, starting in November 2013, against President Viktor Yanukovych's geopolitical reorientation away from the European Union towards Russia's Customs Union. The demonstrations quickly escalated - provoked by swiftly-passed anti-protests laws - into demands for his resignation, and by February 2014, pitched battles were being fought between government forces and pro-European integration protestors occupying the Maidan and several key government buildings. According to an analysis by Kirill Buketov of the Global Labour Institute , “the Maidan,” as the movement itself became known - in echo of “the Square,” referring to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the heart of the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt in 2011-2012 - was overwhelmingly participated in by apolitical people, with a tiny fraction of 7% comprising “politicals” ranging from anarchists to nostalgic Stalinists and “right-wing ultras.” These last were a thorn in the side of the anarchists, forcibly preventing them from establishing a defensive Anarchist Squadron, Buketov stated, though this defeat seems to have turned them towards involvement in the Student's Assembly, which became “fully controlled by the anarchist students’ union Direct Action, and all of the Assembly’s slogans were social ones. Socialist agitation was under way at the Assembly, there were lectures, socially relevant films were shown.” 

Direct Action is on comradely terms with the Autonomous Workers' Union (ACT)  , formed in 2011 by anarchist and libertarian Marxist members of Direct Action; it currently does not have the critical mass necessary to establish a true union structure, but is a revolutionary syndicalist initiative that by April 2014 had locals in Kiev (about 25 members) and Kharkiv (about 15 members). Despite the ACT's links to the Maidan's Student's Assembly, Buketov's report points to a deeper problem with the Maidan movement, that it was overwhelmingly middle-class: “The weakness of the Maidan was insufficient involvement of trade unions and the working class. Only 5-7% of all Maidan participants could be categorised as workers, which, come to think of it, is natural: participation in a public protest is extremely complicated for workers” because as breadwinners, their priority is retaining their jobs. So, it is quite logical that the bulk of the protest movement was formed by students, pensioners, office clerks, civil servants, small entrepreneurs, etc. Furthermore, none of the Kiev left bothered to start agitation in workplaces, to try to bridge the protests and the workers’ community. The free trade unions’ call for a general political strike just hung in midair." An ACT member said in an interview that "social issues regarding the workers’ rights are not on the agenda at all. The working class, as a class, does not take part in these events at all. The workers naturally do take sides, but they are not organised in class-like organisations, in unions, as such they just don’t participate in these events. And they have good reasons for this, because both sides just talk about the cultural, political issues, which don’t have any direct connection to [the] needs of an average worker."

But far more severe problems loomed for the Euro-integrationist project of the Maidan, sometimes called Euromaidan because of its stance: firstly the swift rise to dominance of right-wing extremists within and outside its ranks; and secondly, the unfolding West-versus-Russia imperialist battle over spheres of influence that used Ukraine as a battlefield and its people as their cannon-fodder. In a January 2014 interview, RKAS' Shevchenko noted that “The Maidan militants consist mainly of activists of the so-called Right Sector [a 10,000-strong Ukrainian ultranationalist-fascist paramilitary coalition]... On the street, extreme nationalists and neo-Nazis rule. They have an unique opportunity to get a baptism of fire and be tempered in battles with the police. They set the tone of 'the revolutionary Maidan.' They are followed by the common people. The rightists organise, unite, throw slogans and conduct a strategy. And they get support from most citizens who came to the Maidan and who, at the beginning, wanted 'just' to express their dissatisfaction with the current government. In the evening of January 19, the Maidan split into 'the legals' [around the parliamentary opposition] and 'the illegals... the radicals leading the street fighting...”  Buketov noted that "despite a large number of the left involved in the Maidan there was practically no coordination among them. Having joined the protests later than the right-wingers, the left instantly rushed into the thick of it and did not have time to create their own organisational structures – unlike the Right [...] Sector which managed to do that."

In Kharkiv, however, the ACT announced that as of February, it had been working within the Co-ordinating Council (Koordrada) of the city's Maidan.  The ACT Kharkiv described the Koordrada (KR) as “a free association of all public organisations actively involved in Euromaidan. [The] Koordrada... is a horizontal structure in which all issues are resolved by consensus... 95% of it consists of liberals and the moderate right and left viewpoints. No Right Sector... nor ultra nor parliamentary parties are in Koordrada (in this respect, Kharkiv is an exception). Currently, KR is engaged in trying to create an independent media, while it attempts to rebuild Maidan [via] veche (popular assemblies)... Another direction of the KR in which anarchists take part are discussions with 'Antimaidan': they are for the Russian language, [but] against conflict with Russia, and against [the right-populist parliamentary party] Svoboda, etc. And the people who come to Antimaidan are from two sides - the Communists, and pro-Russian activists [an ACT member said the Communist Party of the Ukraine "for many years has had nothing to do with communism, its political programme and agenda [can be] rather described as conservative"]. Pro-Russian sentiment exists among the masses here, but it does not prevail. Further developments will depend on the behavior of Russian and Ukrainian troops. In the case of more or less peaceful developments, KR will perform independent grassroots building, pressuring authorities and trying to reduce their powers." However, peace was not forthcoming and the ACT soon inevitably found itself fighting the Antimaidan when the latter attacked the Kharkiv Maidan. 

As veteran IWA activist Antti Rautianen said in May 2014 , although the Kharkiv Maidan insertion was in his view the "most successful anarchist intervention," the conflict with the Antimaidan saw "anarchists... fighting side by side with liberals and fascists. I do not want to criticize the Kharkiv anarchists; after all they made, perhaps, the most serious attempt among Ukrainian anarchists to influence the course of events, but this was hardly the fight, and these were hardly the allies, they wanted. And so, comes the point when desertion becomes imperative, and that is when civil war begins. As of now, it's still too early to make any final assessment of the anarchist attempts to influence Maidan, but after the beginning of a civil war, Maidan will no longer play a role. From now on, assembly will gradually turn to the army, and assault rifles will replace Molotov cocktails. Military discipline will replace spontaneous organisation." And this brings us to the rapid militarisation of the crisis in Ukraine. The toppling of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government precipitated Russia's military invasion, then annexation, of the Crimean peninsula. Rautianen claims that “none of the fears of 'fascist takeover' have materialised. Fascists gained very little real power, and in Ukraine their historical role will now be that of storm-troopers for liberal reforms demanded by the IMF and the European Union — that is, pension cuts, an up to five times increase in consumer gas prices, and others. Fascism in Ukraine has a powerful tradition, but it has been incapable of proceeding with its own agenda in the revolutionary wave. It is highly likely that the Svoboda party will completely discredit itself in front of its voters. But anyone attempting to intervene, anarchists included, could have encountered the same fate — that is, to be sidelined after all their effort. During the protests, anarchists and the 'left' were looking towards the Right Sector with envy, but in the end all the visibility and notoriety, for which they paid dearly, was not enough to help the Right Sector gain any real influence." 

And yet, with the openly ultranationalist and white supremacist Azov Battalion of about 500 volunteers, formed under the aegis of the Ukrainian Ministry Internal Affairs and armed with tanks  and heavy weapons sponsored by Ukraine’s third-richest oligarch, Igor Kolomoysky, Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, engaging in open combat with Russian-backed separatists, concerns have been expressed about the role such fascists will perform in Ukrainian public life after the crisis is over. Ukraine has a strong fascist minority, that usually draws inspiration from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which collaborated with the Nazis and participated in anti-Semitic genocide during World War II (the latter used a red-and-black flag, divided horizontally, which must not be confused with the anarcho-syndicalist red-and-black, divided diagonally). Clearly, the crisis has escalated into a partial civil war in at least the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, with over 2,000 deaths. Much of the heaviest fighting has been taking place in the city of Donetsk and Shevchenko reported in his June 2014 interview that RKAS, already weakened by the anti-organisationist faction and the 2011 MSA split, decided to tactically dissolve and go underground: "As far as RKAS... is concerned, it does not exist anymore in the quality you have known it until now. Officially, but tacitly, RKAS was disbanded and its nucleus made the switch to illegal operations. Why did this happen? It happened because in the form RKAS had existed up to date, it did not meet the requirements of the time being. Though, in the same way, the whole anarchist movement – both in Russia and Ukraine – does not meet the requirements of today; and RKAS being a part of this movement hasn’t managed to overcome all those vices, which make the contemporary 'anarcho-movement' be not of the moment. All these years we’ve tried to create an effective project in the medium [term] where the project of such a kind was doomed to failure. RKAS was such a project. And time showed us the complete futility of our attempts.... Coming back to the fate of RKAS, I can say that its disappearance is just a tactical step. Perhaps, RKAS will re-emerge in a new capacity, taking into account all the mistakes and being modernized according to the situation; perhaps we will create something brand new or a couple of variants. But the spirit of RKAS and the idea of that kind of anarchism which we have been trying to achieve for more than 20 years now, will live on. We are not surrendering and we are not disappearing. For now, we have dissolved in time and space. For a little while."

The ideological confusion that crippled the RKAS, lead it to fail its sternest test – the Maidan uprising and the civil war over eastern Ukraine. Shevchenko is unsparing in his analysis: "I firmly believe that any social revolution is possible only in the presence of two factors. These are: massive public demand for radical change and the political organization of anarchist of the revolutionary wing, which will be able to organize and direct the process of change and consolidate its results. If the first factor is more or less present, and activity by the population has increased, the subjective factor is still absent. Political revolution is taking place. And political forces and those who are called the big bourgeoisie – or with a modern twist, the oligarchs – will take advantage of its results. But if we are talking about social revolution, then there is no serious demand for it, people, even if they see the changes, they see these changes only within the framework of purely political changes. And even those timid shoots of anti-authoritarian social revolutionism, which are not supported by a strong anti-authoritarian revolutionary organisation, will be crushed by the political agenda of the bourgeois and nationalist parties. I have already talked about the absence of anarchist organisation. This is the main problem of the modern anarchist movement and the cause of its collapse against the background of current developments. The things that are happening now in Ukraine and the fact that anarchists here have been unable to use the situation because they denied common sense for years and were enthralled by subcultural, anti-organisational illusions, provides much food for self-analysis. And it confirms all the conclusions and efforts which supporters of the project called 'RKAS - N.I. Makhno' attempted to carry out. The fact that it failed says a lot and answers the following question: 'Is it possible for anarchists to hope now to switch the activity of the masses to the plane of the social revolution?'. The organisation is a very important medium for the existence of ideas. It is an incubator, a school, a mutual aid society and a productive platform for ideas and projects; but most importantly, it is a tool of realising those ideas, it is an instrument of influence and an instrument of struggle. It cannot be replaced with affinity groups. Read Makhno, Arshinov, Volin, Bookchin, finally, and everything becomes clear. Anarchists now, like in 1917, have missed a unique opportunity to head the process."

A Euromaidan protestor in Kiev 18 February 2014 by Emine Ziyatdonova


Thursday 27 July 2017

How African Dictators Corrupt European Politics (2012)

We have seen several curious reversals of the usual pecking order in world affairs regarding Africa’ status of late, not least of which have been the spectacle of Portugal begging for aid from its former colony Angola, and of European citizens relocating back to their former colonies, fleeing economic crisis in Europe for poorly-paid jobs in the African hinterland .
But there is a longer-lived and more secret relationship between Africa and Europe that overturns the conventional view of African presidents being corrupted by European aid-with-strings-attached; this is the phenomenon of la valise, “the suitcase” system of millions sent over decades by African dictators to corrupt the European political process. Seeing as how language differences divide common understanding between Francophone Africa and Anglophone Africa, the two largest colonial-language blocs, it is worth us here in the English-speaking part of the continent to examine this phenomenon so entrenched in Francophone African affairs – and now apparently spreading. The Center for French and Francophone Studies at Duke University in North Carolina hosted a debate on la valise on 5 October 2011 called “The Colonies Pay Back: Culture and Corruption in Franco-African Relations,” and this article comprises extracts from that debate.

Post-Colonial France, the “Suitcase Republic”

Philippe Bernard, the outgoing Le Monde correspondent for Africa, initiated the debate by noting that Robert Bourgi,  Gaullist French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s unofficial advisor, had in September 2011 accused former socialist President Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who were in power from 1995-2007, of having received enormous bribes in the form of suitcases stuffed with cash, from five West and Central African states – the Congo, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon – to fund Chirac’s campaign. In a later interview with Canal+, Bourgi claimed that the 1988 campaign of far-right candidate Jean-Marie le Pen of the National Front, had also been partly funded by the valise. Chirac and de Villepin have denied Bourgi’s claims.
According to the Telegraph’s retelling of the tale,  Bourgi claimed  in an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche that he had personally “transported ‘tens of millions of francs’ each year, with the amounts going up in the run-up to French presidential elections – an intimation the cash was used to fund Mr Chirac's political campaigns. ‘I saw Chirac and Villepin count the money in front of me,’ he said. He alleged he regularly passed on bank notes from five African presidents: Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal [in power 2000-2012]; Blaise Campaoré of Burkina Faso [1987-today]; Laurent Gbagbo of Ivory Coast [2000-2011]; Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo [1997-today] and Omar Bongo of Gabon [1967-2009], whom Mr Bourgi called ‘Papa’. Together, he alleged they contributed £6.2-million to Mr Chirac's successful 2002 presidential campaign. A sixth leader, President Obiang N’Guema of Equatorial Guinea [1979-today] allegedly was the last member to join the cash donor club,” until, Bourgi claimed, a nervous de Villepin brought the system to a halt in 2005. Bourgi claimed he had personally run the valise system for 25 years and in exchange, the African dictators were granted huge reductions in their debt to France once their sponsored candidate attained office in the Elysée.
Bernard said he believed the system had arisen out of the notion of “France-Afrique, the confusion of French and African interests. It has been a public secret since [African] liberation in the 1960s: in 1960/61, deals were signed that France will use its power to defend the [African] regimes and France will have exclusive access to African raw materials and the right of France to intervene militarily in case of threats to African national security. In the 1980s, the Gaullists [then in opposition against François Mitterand’s Socialist government] were similarly accused – that a percentage of Gabonese oil revenues were allegedly used to finance their campaigns – but proof and public testimony was lacking.”
Professor Stephen Smith, former Africa editor of Libération, and Bernard’s predecessor at Le Monde, recalled rumours that “money smuggled in by Africans to the French Prime Minister’s office in djembe drums. The office has no air-conditioning, so the thought of him standing there with his sleeves rolled up counting it all is amusing.” On a serious note, however, Smith recalled that in 1971, at the very start of a reign that only ended in 1993, it was said that the first President of Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, had donated “bags of money” to the conservative Georges Pompidou government. There was, Smith said, “a long contuinuity of the practice from the Gaullists [Charles de Gaulle was in power 1959-1969] to [the rightist Republican Valéry] Giscard d’Estaing [1974-1981], a continuity of conservative governments,” who had been propped up by la valise: “This amounts to a post-colonial ‘informal state,’ not on paper, but in practice.” 
Remember that this period – the Fifth French Republic – was brought into being in 1958 by the crisis in France precipitated by the Algerian Liberation War. So we have half a century of African dictators, installed and propped up by French military power, who in turn propped up with African oil and other revenue, a string of conservative sister regimes in France – although Smith said that the valise system in the six countries also worked via French companies working in parallel in the former colonies: one paid the French conservative Gaullists; the other paid the French socialists and communists. Given France’s strategic position within Europe, its influence only matched by Germany and Britain, anyone able to buy the French Presidency in effect purchases huge influence in Europe itself – so progressive politics on both continents appear to have been bedeviled by these secret transactions.
Smith said that his first newspaper scoop on the secret practice regarding the shadowy character of Bourgi, was in 1995 for Libération when he wrote about the unprocedural write-off of Zaïrean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s debts: Mobutu “raised his little staff and I was afraid he would hit me! Robert Bourgi earned €600,000 from Mobuto to put out the fire – and he earned €1-million to stop a book that I was writing.”
Bourgi’s “accounting is pristine; he deals only in cash, so there is little to prove.” The bribe money was later deposited in South African or Lebanese bank accounts, Smith claimed. The reach of Bourgi’s unofficial power was considerable: Smith claimed that when Sarkozy wanted a rare photo-opportunity with South Africa’s now-reclusive and elderly Nelson Mandela, Bourgi simply phoned up “Papa,” Gabonese President Omar Bongo, who persuaded the old man to agree to fly to Paris for the meeting in 2007.

The Suitcase System Expands

Prof Achille Membe, a specialist in post-colonial Africa, responded that the valise system was one of “mutual corruption” that has “shackled France and Africa for decades”: “The relationship is not only corrupt in terms of money… It’s a deeper form of cultural corruption that has emasculated somewhat African civil societies. In terms of the future, France still has military bases in Africa and can kick out a Gbagbo. But when France has to pay a heavy price [for intervention], it will think twice.”
Bernard said that as France’s grip on the African continent started to be eclipsed militarily (by the USA in particular ), in terms of the Francophone African CFA currency which is linked to the embattled Euro, in terms of French companies losing their exclusive relationships with African regimes as the International Monetary Fund took the reins in many countries and as Chinese, Brazilian and Indian investment poured into the continent, Sarkozy wanted the “network of go-betweens” such as Bourgi, who had “operated as a parallel diplomat,” to end.
Smith agreed that France now made more money from its relations with Anglophone Africa – South Africa and Kenya in particular – than it did from its former colonies, but warned that “now you’ve got a multiplication of the French exceptionalist models: China’s Africa relationship is as corrupt as the French; the French preserve and privilege has now become globalised.” Membe added that in his view, the waning of the French star in Africa – despite French remaining a dominant African language, and despite the existence of an African Diaspora literati in France – was that France itself “has entered a process of re-provincialising,” of monocultural conservatism and retreat from world affairs.
Membe said that “Robert Bourgi’s ‘revelations’ weren’t revelations in Africa. In Francophone Africa, this hasn’t been perceived as a scandal” because the prevailing cynicism about Franco-African relations was underscored by a long-term trend of the decline of the importance of France to its former colonies: “Geography is no longer centred on Paris… Robert Bourgi and others are the last spasms of a dead proposition, something that is on its knees, no longer historical but anecdotal… France will become a parenthesis.”
But it is very far from clear whether the valise system has indeed come to an end and lost its ability to shape African history. Smith said that Sarkozy’s own reputation was in doubt as he had written off 40% of the debts of Congo and of Gabon – whereas Chirac had capped the write-offs at only 8%, so suspected payments to Sarkozy would have been “a good investment by African leaders.” If Sarkozy is also involved, then Bourgi’s end-game in speaking out about the valise system after 25 years – and claiming it ended with Chirac – is clearly not aimed at tarnishing Chirac, who is a dying man and a spent political force, but rather to threaten Sarkozy while he is still President, forcing him to allow Bourgi to retire smoothly, without fear of prosecution, aged 67, to his newly-purchased mansion in Corsica.
Smith said the roots of the system lay in the fact that “when Europeans came to Africa, they ‘unbuttoned’ themselves,” initiating the corrupt relationship. But it takes two to tango, so what of the agency of African leaders themselves? “If I was an African leader today,” Smith admitted, “I’d still ‘invest’ in France because the United Nations, IMF etc will turn to France when they need assistance in Africa – despite it having lost leverage as a one-stop centre – so African leaders’ choices will still count.”
It is clear the suitcase system will continue, although likely spreading to include several newly invested powers – the USA, China, Brazil, India and South Africa – and ironically, with continental growth at 5.5%, peripheral Africa’s ability to influence and corrupt political affairs in the metropole may well even increase.


Monday 17 July 2017

South Asian Anarchism: Paths to Praxis

Now that I have 400,000 words down on Wildfire with the completion of the sections dealing with South Asia, I thought it worthwhile revisiting two brilliant books on the topic. This is an updated version of the previous Anarkismo article of 2012, and includes details on the contemporary South Asian anarchist movement which were not covered in the original article.

South Asian Anarchism: Paths to Praxis

Meditations on Maia Ramnath’s Decolonizing Anarchism: an Antiauthoritarian History of India’s Liberation Struggle (AK Press, USA, 2012) and her Haj to Utopia: How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire (California World History Library, USA, 2011) – by Michael Schmidt, co-author with Lucien van der Walt of Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism, Counter-power Vol.1  (AK Press, USA, 2009), and author of Cartographie de l’anarchisme révolutionnaire (Lux Éditeur, Canada, 2012). The original piece was kindly edited by van der Walt - but the revision is my own.

What the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ Maia Ramnath has achieved with these two books whose angles of approach differ yet which form companion volumes in that they intersect on the little-known anarchist movement of South Asia, is a breathtaking, sorely-needed re-envisioning of anarchism’s forgotten organisational strength in the colonial world which points to its great potential to pragmatically combat imperialism today.

Anarchism’s Anti-imperialism Enabled its Global Reach

To paint the backdrop to Ramnath’s work, we need to break with conventional anarchist histories. Lucien van der Walt and Steven Hirsch’s Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Post-Colonial World (2010) states: “The First International provided the womb in which the anarchist movement emerged, but the formal meetings of the International, its press, and its debates were located within the body of a dynamic global working class and peasant network. Anarchism had an organised presence in Argentina, Cuba, Egypt and Mexico from the 1870s, followed by Ireland, South Africa and Ukraine in the 1880s. The first anarchist-led, syndicalist, unions outside of Spain (the Spanish Regional Workers’ Federation, 1870) and the USA (the Central Labor Union, 1884) were Mexico’s General Congress of Mexican Workers (1876) and Cuba’s Workers’ Circle (1887). These were the immediate ancestors of the better known syndicalist unions that emerged globally from the 1890s onwards. To put it another way, anarchism was not a West European doctrine that diffused outwards, perfectly formed, to a passive ‘periphery.’ Rather, the movement emerged simultaneously and transnationally, created by interlinked activists on [four] continents – a pattern of inter-connection, exchange and sharing, rooted in ‘informal internationalism,’ which would persist into the 1940s and beyond.” They concluded that to “speak of discrete ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ anarchist and syndicalist movements’” as is common in contemporary anarchist discourse, “would be misleading and inaccurate.”
It cannot be overemphasised how for the first 50 years of its existence as a proletarian mass movement since its origin in the First International, the anarchist movement often entrenched itself far more deeply in the colonies of the imperialist powers and in those parts of the world still shackled by post-colonial regimes than in its better-known Western heartlands like France or Spain. Until Lenin, Marxism had almost nothing to offer on the national question in the colonies, and until Mao, who had been an anarchist in his youth, neither did Marxism have anything to offer the peasantry in such regions – regions that Marx and Engels, speaking as de facto German supremacists from the high tower of German capitalism, dismissed in their Communist Manifesto (1848) as the “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries.” Instead, Marxism stressed the virtues of capitalism (and even imperialism) as an onerous, yet necessary stepping stone to socialism. Engels summed up their devastating position in an article entitled Democratic Pan-Slavism in their Neue Rheinische Zeitung of 14 February 1849: the United States’ annexation of Texas in 1845 and invasion of Mexico in 1846 in which Mexico lost 40% of its territory were applauded as they had been “waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilisation,” as “splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it” by “the energetic Yankees” who would “for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilisation…” So, “the ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in some places ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?” By this racial argument of the “iron reality” of inherent national virility giving rise to laudable capitalist overmastery, Engels said the failure of the Slavic nations during the 1848 Pan-European Revolt to throw off their Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian yokes, demonstrated not only their ethnic unfitness for independence, but that they were in fact “counter-revolutionary” nations deserving of “the most determined use of terror” to suppress them. 
It reads chillingly like a foreshadowing of the Nazis’ racial nationalist arguments for the use of terror against the Slavs during their East European conquest. Engels’ abysmal article had been written in response to Mikhail Bakunin’s Appeal to the Slavs by a Russian Patriot in which he – at that stage not yet an anarchist – had by stark contrast argued that the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary camps were divided not by nationality or stage of capitalist development, but by class. In 1848, revolutionary class consciousness had expressed itself as a “cry of sympathy and love for all the oppressed nationalities”. Urging the Slavic popular classes to “extend your had to the German people, but not to the… petit bourgeois Germans who rejoice at each misfortune that befalls the Slavs,” Bakunin concluded that there were “two grand questions spontaneously posed in the first days of the [1848] spring… the social emancipation of the masses and the liberation of the oppressed nations.” 
By 1873, when Bakunin, now unashamedly anarchist, threw down the gauntlet to imperialism, writing that “Two-thirds of humanity, 800 million Asiatics, asleep in their servitude, will necessarily awaken and begin to move,” the newly-minted anarchist movement was engaging directly and repeatedly with the challenges of imperialism, colonialism, national liberation movements, and post-colonial regimes. So it was that staunchly anti-imperialist anarchism and its emergent revolutionary unionist strategy, syndicalism – and not pro-imperialist Marxism – that rose to often hegemonic dominance of the union centres of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay in the early 1900s, almost every significant economy and population concentration in post-colonial Latin America. In six of these countries, anarchists mounted attempts at revolution; in Cuba and Mexico, they played a key role in the successful overthrow of reactionary regimes; while in Mexico and Nicaragua they deeply influenced significant experiments in large-scale revolutionary agrarian social construction. 
The anarchist movement also established smaller syndicalist unions in colonial and semi-colonial territories as diverse as Algeria, Bulgaria, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Korea, Malaya (Malaysia), New Zealand, North and South Rhodesia (Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively), the Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, South Africa, South-West Africa (Namibia), and Venezuela – and built crucial radical networks in the colonial and post-colonial  world: East Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Central America, the Caribbean, South-East Asia, and Ramnath’s chosen terrain, the South Asian sub-continent. In recent years, there have been several attempts to take on the huge task of researching and reintroducing anarchists, syndicalists and a broader activist public to this neglected anti-authoritarian counter-imperialist tradition: Lucien van der Walt’s and my two-volume Counter-power project is one global overview; the book edited by van der Walt and Hirsch is another; and there are important new regional studies such as Ilham Khuri-Makdisi’s, Levantine Trajectories: the Formulation and Dissemination of Radical Ideas in and between Beirut, Cairo and Alexandria 1860-1914 (2003), and Benedict Anderson’s study of the Philippines, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination (2005).

South Asia: the Gap in the Record

But so far, research into historical anarchism and syndicalism in South Asia (in Ramnath’s pre-Partition terminology, India) has been lacking. In part this is because it was an immensely fragmented sub-continent, with three imperialist powers, Britain, France and Portugal, directly asserting dominance over a multiplicity of principalities and other indigenous power-structures, often integrated into the European empires through alliances and indirect rule, a patchwork not unlike Germany prior to Prussian expansion in the mid-19th Century: Ramnath calls India’s pre-colonial structures “a range of overlapping, segmentary, sovereign units oriented towards different centers”. This “beehive” polity was further fractured and complicated by religion, language, colour, and caste, so it is arguably difficult to scent the anarchist idea and its diffusions in such a potpourri. 
Then again, van der Walt and my experience in researching Counter-power over 12 years has suggested that the lack of knowledge of the Indian anarchist movement is probably simply because (until Ramnath), no-one was looking for signs of its presence. While the history of Indian Marxism has been well documented, the anarchists have been ignored, or conflated with the very different Gandhians. For example, it was obvious to us that the strength of the French anarchist movement in the first half of the 20th Century definitely implied that there must have been an anarchist or syndicalist presence or impact on the French colonial port enclave of Pondicherry; and indeed Ramnath now confirms that Pondicherry was at least a base for anarchist-sympathetic Indian militants. 
There were, of course, very real structural obstacles to the diffusion of anarchism and syndicalism in colonial South Asia. Much of India was pre-industrial, even semi-feudal; and while there was a large mass of landless labourers, capitalism had a limited impact. Despite the misrepresentation of anarchism and syndicalism in mainstream Marxist writings as a refuge of the declining artisanal classes, and as a revolt against modernity, it was primarily in the world’s industrial cities – Chicago, San Francisco, Buenos Aires, Valparaíso, São Paulo, Veracruz, Glasgow, Barcelona, Essen, Turin, Yekaterinoslav (Dnipropetrovs’k), St Petersburg, Cairo, Johannesburg, Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Yokohama, Sydney and so forth – that the movement raised strongholds: the ports, slums, mines, plantations and factories were its fields of germination; and it was the shipping lanes and railways that were its vectors. Its agrarian experiments were also centred on regions where old agrarian orders were being shattered by imperialism, capitalism and the modern state, like Morelos and Pueblo in Mexico, Fukien in China, Shinmin in Manchuria, Aragon, Valencia and Andalusia in Spain, Patagonia in Argentina, and Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine. So in some respects, India’s colonial fragmentation and level of development can be seen as similar to contemporary West Africa, where syndicalist unions only sprung up in the 1990s in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. 
Yet India was also very much part of the modern world, its older systems being transformed by imperialism as well as the rising local bourgeoisie; the “jewel” of the British Empire, it was locked into late nineteenth century globalisation as a source of cheap labour (including a large Diaspora of indentured migrants), raw materials and mass markets; Indian sailors were integral to the British fleets and Indian workers and peasants were integral to British industry; Indian workers and intellectuals resident in the West were heavily involved in radical milieus and alliances.  So I am fairly certain, given that syndicalism was propagated incessantly in the pre- and inter-war period by Indian revolutionaries, and given their links to the British working class, the leading edge of which in the pre-war period was syndicalist, that someone actively looking for de facto syndicalist unions in India’s port cities would unearth something of interest.

Introducing Ramnath’s Books

Briefly, Decolonizing Anarchism looks through what Ramnath calls “the stereoscopic lenses of anarchism and anticolonialism” for both explicitly anarchist as well as less explicitly libertarian socialist approaches, in the words and deeds of a wide range of local thinkers and activists, from the Bengali terrorists of the early 1900s, to the Gandhian decentralists of the mid-century Independence era, and to the non-partisan social movements of today. This is an important recovery of a tradition that rejected the statism of both the Indian National Congress, and of Communist traditions, and that raises important questions about the trajectory of Indian anti-imperialism. 
Her Haj to Utopia explores the closest thing that colonial-era India had to an explicitly anarchist-influenced sub-continental and in fact international organisation, the Ghadar (Mutiny) Party. This took its name from the 1857 “Mutiny” against British rule, an uprising revered by Indian revolutionaries of all ideologies, as reflected in Ghadar’s fused and phased mixture of syndicalism, Marxism, nationalism, radical republicanism, and pan-Islamicism. The two books intersect in the figure of Ghadar Party founder Lala Har Dayal (1884?- 1939), a globe-hopping, ascetic Bakuninist revolutionary and industrial syndicalist, secretary of the Oakland, California, branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and founder of the Bakunin Institute near that city. Har Dayal is of interest to van der Walt and I, in writing the South Asian section of Counter-power’s narrative history volume Global Fire because he was explicitly anarchist and syndicalist and because he was a true internationalist, building a world-spanning liberation movement that not only established roots in Hindustan and Punjab, but which linked radicals within the Indian Diaspora as far afield as Afghanistan, British East Africa (Uganda and Kenya), British Guiana (Guiana), Burma, Canada, China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaya (Malaysia), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Panama, the Philippines, Siam (Thailand), Singapore, South Africa, and the USA, with Ghadarites remaining active in (for example) colonial Kenya into the 1950s.

Lala Har Dayal

Oddly, Ramnath often uses the formulation “Western anarchism” – by which she says she means a Western conception of anarchism, rather than a geographic delimitation. Yet her own work underlines the point that anarchism/syndicalism was a universal and universalist movement, neither confined to nor centred on the West, a movement sprung transnationally and deeply rooted across the world. Of course, it adapted to local and regional situations – anarchism in the Peruvian indigenous movement was not identical to anarchism in the rural Vlassovden in Bulgaria, or amongst the Burakumin outcaste in Japan (this latter having implications for the Dalit outcaste of India) – but all of these shared core features and ideas. Anarchism in South Asia is a small but important link in the vast networks of anarchism across the colonial and postcolonial world. I feel Ramnath could have benefited from a deeper knowledge of the movement’s historical trajectories across and implantation in colonial Asia, not least in China, Manchuria, Korea, Hong Kong, Formosa (Taiwan), Malaya (Malaysia), the Philippines, and the territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina (together, Vietnam) – but then our Global Fire [now renamed Wildfire] is not yet published. 
Lucien van der Walt and my books have challenged the narrow, North Atlanticist bias of most anarchist historiography, and were written from such a perspective because we live in post-colonial Africa, and we needed to rediscover and re-establish the legitimacy of the anarchist/syndicalist praxis in our own region – where, for example, syndicalists built the what was probably the first union amongst Indian workers in British colonial Africa in Durban, South Africa, in 1917 on the IWW model, and where we work alongside Indian Diasporic militants today. It is hugely to Ramnath’s credit that the implications of her work in restoring to us the contemporary relevance of South Asian libertarian socialism far exceed her own objectives. Despite her location in the imperialist USA, her motivations appear to be similar to our own: a rediscovery of her own people’s place in anti-authoritarian history. And despite the fact that our approach favours what David Graeber calls “big-A anarchism” – the organised, explicitly anarchist movement of class struggle – and hers what he calls “small-a anarchism” – the broader range of libertarian and anarchist-influenced oppositional movements – our objectives coincide; taken together, her and our trajectories amount to a Haj, a political-intellectual pilgrimage, towards recovering a viable anarchist anti-imperialist praxis.

Reassessing Gandhi’s “Libertarianism”

Just as she has introduced us to the details of the life of the ubiquitous figure of Mandayam Parthasarathi Tirumal “MPT” Acharya (1887-1954), a life-long anarchist, and, ironically, Lenin’s delegate to the Ghadar-founded “Provisional Indian Government” in Kabul, so we hope to introduce her to ethnic Indian revolutionary syndicalists such as Bernard Lazarus Emanuel Sigamoney (1888-1963) of the IWW-styled Indian Workers’ Industrial Union in Durban. In many respects, we have walked the same paths, for we too needed to assess the Bengali terrorists who interacted with British anarchists like Guy Aldred, to ascertain whether they were ever convinced by anarchism, beyond the simple and dangerous glamour of “propaganda by the deed”.  We too have weighed up whether Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) can be claimed – as in Peter Marshall’s Demanding the Impossible: a History of Anarchism (2008), a magisterial work, yet flawed in its definitions – as “the outstanding libertarian in India earlier this century”.  This same argument has been made by the late Geoffrey Ostergaard, who called the Gandhians “gentle anarchists”.

MPT Acharya

Ramnath writes of Gandhi that he “harboured a deep distaste for the institution of the state”. This is unquestionable and it is important to recall that there was an anti-statist strand in Indian anti-colonialism. Yet anarchism is more than simply anti-statism: it is libertarian socialist, born of the modern working class. Gandhi’s anti-statism was really a parochial agrarianism and Ramnath is correct to group him with the “romantic countermodernists”; it never translated into a real vision of national liberation without the state as its vehicle, and never had a real programmatic impact on the Congress movement. Ramnath is more convincing than Marshall in showing the libertarian socialist nature of Sarvodaya, the Gandhi-influenced self-rule movement of Jayaprakash “JP” Narayan (1902-1979). 
Gandhian Sarvodaya falls outside of the anarchist current, but initially appears, like anarchism, to be part of the larger libertarian socialist stream within which one finds the likes of council communism. There are some parallels between Gandhi’s vision of “a decentralized federation of autonomous village republics” and the anarchist vision of a world of worker and community councils. Yet this should not be overstated. Gandhi’s rejection of Western capitalist modernity and industrialism has libertarian elements, but Ramnath perhaps goes too far to conclude that he had a clear “anti-capitalist social vision” that could create a new, emancipatory, world – a world in which modernity is recast as libertarian socialism by the popular classes. By her own account, Gandhi’s opposition to both British and Indian capital seems simply romantic, anti-modern and anti-industrial, a rejection of the blight on the Indian landscape of what William Blake called the “dark Satanic mills”. Absent is a real vision of opposing the exploitative mode of production servicing a parasitic class, of seeing the problem with modern technology as lying not in the technology itself, but in its abuse by that class.
Gandhi’s libertarianism leads easily into right wing romanticism. Ramnath admits this, and is unusually frank in noting that there are strands in the Indian anti-colonial matrix that can provide the seed-bed from which both leftist and rightist flowers may sprout. As she notes in Decolonizing Anarchism, “it is a slippery slope from the praise of a völkisch spirit to a mysticism of blood and soil, to chauvinism and fascism”. Although her example of that French prophet of irrationalism and precipitate violent action, Georges Sorel, overinflates his influence on the syndicalist workers’ movement (he was uninvolved and marginal), she is correct in saying that “certain [historical] situations create openings for both right and left responses, and, even more importantly, that the “rejection of certain (rational, industrial, or disciplinary) elements of modernity, became for Indian extremists and Russian populists a proudly self-essentializing rejection of Western elements”, and constituted “a crucial evolutionary node, from which Right and Left branchings were possible.” 
This contradiction is at the very heart of the Gandhian Sarvodaya movement. On the one hand, it has a healthy distrust of the state. On the other, it retains archaic rights and privileges, traditional village hierarchies and paternalistic landlordism – in line with Gandhi’s own “refusal to endorse the class war or repudiate the caste system”. In practice, Ramnath warns that the traditional panchayat “village republic” system from which Sarvodaya draws its legitimacy “is far from emancipatory… women who hold seats are frequently chosen more for their potential as puppets than as leaders.” By contrast, anarchist agrarian revolutionaries like the Magónista Praxedis Guerrero fought and died to end the gendered class system, and to create genuinely free rural worlds, free of feudalism and patriarchy as well as capitalism – not to revert to feudalism over capitalism. Gandhi’s embrace of caste, landlordism, and opposition to modern technologies that can end hunger and backbreaking labour, is diametrically opposed to anarchist egalitarianism. 
Moreover, the mainstream of the anarchist tradition is rationalist, and thus opposed to the state-bulwarking mystification of most organised religion, whereas Gandhian Sarvodaya explicitly promoted Hinduism as part of its uncritical embrace of traditionalism. So what do we make of Gandhi himself? Speaking plainly, I do not like Gandhi because I am a militant anti-militarist who believes that pacifism enables militarism. I am very suspicious of Gandhi’s central role in midwifing the Indian state. On balance, in his völkisch nationalist decentralism, I would argue for him to be seen as something of a forebearer of “national anarchism,” that strange and noxious hybrid of recent years. Misdiagnosed by most anarchists as fascist, “national anarchism” fuses radical decentralism, anti-hegemonic anti-statism (and often anti-capitalism), with a strong self-determinist thrust that stresses cultural-ethnic homogeneity with a traditional past justifying a radical future; this is hardly “fascism” or a rebranding of “fascism,” for what is fascism without the state, hierarchy and class, authoritarianism, and the führer-principle? It is suffice to say that "national-anarchism" is derived from fascism, but diverted from it to include new elements in a syncretic racist mixture that, I argue, Gandhi anticipated.
Turning to the Ghadar movement: besides unalloyed anarchist and syndicalist national liberation figures such as Nestor Makhno (1888-1934) of the Ukraine, Shin Chae’ho (1880-1936) of Korea, Mikhail Gerdzhikov (1877-1947) of Bulgaria, and Leandré Valero (1923-2011) of Algeria, Ghadar can be located within a larger current of anti-colonial movements that were heavily influenced by anarchism, yet not entirely anarchist in that they were influenced by a mixture of beliefs current in their times. For example, Augusto Sandino (1895-1934) of Nicaragua, was influenced by a mélange of IWW-styled industrial syndicalism, ethnic nationalism, and mysticism. Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940) of Vietnam was influenced by anarchism, radical republicanism and, for temporary tactical reasons, was a supporter of the installation of a Vietnamese monarchy. Clements Kadalie (1896-1951) in South Africa drew on the IWW as well as liberalism and Garveyism to organise workers.
In Haj to Utopia, Ramnath notes that “Ghadar was the fruit of a very particular synthesis; of populations, of issues, of contextual frames, and of ideological elements. It is precisely the richness of this combination that enabled it to play the role of missing generation in the genealogy of Indian radicalism, and of medium of translation among co-existing movement discourses.” Likewise, in South Africa, through figures like Thibedi William “TW” Thibedi (1888-1960) we can trace a vector of revolutionary syndicalism from the Industrial Workers of Africa, into the early Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), and into Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Union which established an organisational presence in the British colonies as far afield as North Rhodesia (Zambia), that survived into the 1950s in South Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).  

Three South Asian Anarchist-influenced Movements

What is of interest to van der Walt and I is not so much the ideas of individual Indian libertarian socialists – where these are legitimately identified – but rather whether those ideas motivated any mass movements; broadly because anarchism is only relevant if it escapes ivory towers and self-absorbed radical ghettoes and organises the popular classes, that is, the working class, poor and peasantry; and narrowly because it is important in engaging with ethnic Indian militants today to know of historic Indian anarchism and anarchist-influenced currents. So it is here that both the pre-war Ghadar and post-independence Sarvodaya movements need to be assessed in their own right as living social instruments that developed beyond their founders’ ideas, and also – and this is important – to learn from both their successes and failures. Of Ghadar, Ramnath argues in Haj to Utopia that it was not only a party, but also “a movement, referring to an idea, a sensibility and a set of ideological commitments that took wing – or rather, took ship – exuberantly outrunning their originators’ control.” The same can also be said of Sarvodaya. So what are we to say about Ghadar and Sarvodaya as organisational tendencies, in terms of their practices which overspilled the original visions of Har Dayal and Gandhi? 

a) Pre-Independence: Ghadar Party

Ghadar Party poster

For both movements, the question is inflected with shifts of emphasis over their decades of development, but in the case of Ghadar, its anarchist provenance is clearer and Ramnath argues that this was a very coherent movement: “though many observers and historians have tended to dismiss Ghadar’s political orientation as an untheorized hodgepodge, I believe we can perceive within Ghadarite words and deeds an eclectic and evolving, yet consistently radical program.” She argues, for example, that Ghadar’s “blending of political libertarianism and economic socialism, together with a persistent tendency toward romantic revolutionism, and within their specific context a marked antigovernment bent, is why one may argue that the Ghadar movement’s alleged incoherence is actually quite legible through a logic of anarchism… not only did Ghadar join the impulses towards class struggle and civil rights with anticolonialism, it also managed to combine commitments to both liberty and equality. Initially drawing sustenance from both utopian socialism and libertarian thought, their critique of capitalism and of liberalism’s racial double standard gained increasingly systematic articulation in the course of the [First World] war and the world political shifts in its aftermath.” 
Ghadar’s “indictment of tyranny and oppression was on principle globally applicable, even while generated by a historically specific situation and inflected in culturally specific terms; moreover they increasingly envisaged a comprehensive social and economic restructuring for postcolonial India rather than a mere handing over of the existing governmental institutions.” A “proper Ghadarite” was, she states, anti-colonial, passionately patriotic, internationalist, secularist, modernist, radically democratic, republican, anti-capitalist, militantly revolutionist, and “in temperament, audacious, dedicated, courageous unto death” – mostly virtues that can honestly be ascribed to all real revolutionary socialists, including the anarchists – but with Ghadar’s aim being “a free Indian democratic-republican socialist federation, and an end to all forms of economic and imperial slavery anywhere in the world.” Thus, despite its heterodox sources of inspiration, Ghadar, in its decentralist, egalitarian, free socialist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and universalist yet culturally-sensitive vision, closely approximated “big-A” anarchism. 
As an organisational model, she says that “Ghadar is often positioned as a transitional phase between two modes of revolutionary struggle, namely, the conspiratorial secret society model and the mass organizational model, which is also to say the voluntarist and structuralist theories of precipitating change.” However, she writes, Ghadar was a distinctly different and “relatively stable mode” that involved a necessary articulation between the two other modes, between what we would call the specific organisation (of tendency) and the mass organisation (of class).
To expand: in most sub-revolutionary situations, specific anarchist organisations organised workers at the critical fulcrum of exploitation by creating syndicalist unions, unions to defend the working class but with revolutionary objectives. As these movements of counter-power developed, they went beyond the factory gates, to build revolutionary class fronts embracing (for example) rent strikes, neighbourhood assemblies, subsistence food-gardens, popular education, proletarian arts, and popular councils (soviets, we might say, although that term has been severely abused by awful regimes). As this grassroots counter-power and counter-culture became a significant threat to the ruling classes, armed formations (militia, guerrilla forces, or even subversive cells within the official army and navy) were often formed to defend the people’s gains. And lastly, at this matured, the productive, distributive, deliberative, educational, cultural and defensive organs of counter-power would be linked into regional and national assemblies of mandated delegates. This enabled the co-ordination of a social revolution over a large territory, and the transformation of counter-power into the organised democratic control of society by the popular classes. This was the ideal route, aspired to by most anarchist movements; we can see elements of it in the Ghadar sensibility and aspirations too. 
But the world does not always work as planned, of course, and sometimes anarchists, like the Bulgarians who fought for the liberation of Macedonia from Ottoman imperialism in 1903, were forced by living under imperialist circumstances into different routes – in this case, creating popular guerrilla formations first in order to wage anti-colonial war, only paying attention to industrial organisation in subsequent years. This is similar to the path taken by Ghadar, which focused on military and propaganda work, including the subversion of Indian colonial troops (Indian servicemen returning home from defending the British Empire were receptive to Ghadarite stresses on the contractions between their sacrifice and their conditions at home). This was clearly informed not only by the insurrectionary tendencies of the day (including strands of anarchism), but also the objective difficulties of open mass work against colonialism in a largely agrarian context.
With the formation of an independent Indian state in 1947 under the Congress party, supported by Gandhi, conditions changed again. Ghadar was, by this stage, still operational but increasingly intertwined with the Communist Party, which in turn, had a complex on-off relationship with the ruling Congress party – yet “Ghadar’s influence,” Ramnath writes, “continued to echo long after independence. The Kirti Party and later the Lal Communist Party espoused a heterodox socialism that resisted the diktats of CPI correctness and retained characteristically Ghadarite elements of romantic idealism.” Veteran Ghadarites came to the fore again when the CPI Marxist-Leninist (CPI-ML) split from the Party in the 1960s, and in 1969, a Communist Ghadar Party of India (CGPI) was founded among the Indian Diaspora in Britain and Canada with “anticapitalism and opposition to neocolonialism in India and antiracism and the struggle for immigrant rights in the West” as its key goals. The best epitaph of Ghadar appears to be that of Rattan Singh, quoted by Ramnath as saying the party consisted of “simple peasants who became revolutionists and dared to raise the banner of revolt at a time when most of our national leaders could not think beyond ‘Home Rule’.”

b) Post-Independence: Sarvodaya

Jayaprakash Narayan

Beyond Ghadarite echoes within heterodox communism, did libertarian socialism implant itself within post-Independence India in any way? To answer this question, we have to turn to Sarvodaya as a movement. I must say that Ramnath makes a strong case that its key interpreter in his later years, Jayaprakash "JP" Narayan, had moved from Marxism to a position far to the left of Gandhi, of de facto anarchism, by Independence. Narayan was a founder in 1934 of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), then a left caucus within the Indian National Congress. Ramnath makes no mention of the inner dynamics of the CSP, which make for intriguing reading. According to Maria Misra’s Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebellion (2008), the CSP “included both socialists and [after 1936] communists – following the recent U-turn in Soviet policy encouraging communists to collaborate with nationalist parties. The goal of this group was the continuation and escalation of mass agitation, the boycott of constitutional reform and the inclusion of the trade unions and kisan sabhas [peasant associations] in Congress in order to strengthen the institutional representation of the radicals”. According to Kunal Chattopadhyay in The World Social Forum: What it Could Mean for the Indian Left (2003), after the Communists were expelled from Congress in 1940 for advocating measures that would warm an anarchist heart (a general strike linked with an armed uprising), a growing “anarchist” influence led the CSP under Narayan’s leadership into a more strongly anti-statist, anti-parliamentary orientation. A tantalising hint – although much depends on what Chattopadhyay means by “anarchist”! 
Then, after Indian statehood in 1947, the CSP split from Congress to form a more mainstream Indian Socialist Party – and Narayan exited, turning his back on electoral politics entirely. For the next 30 years – before his return to party politics to rally the forces that defeated the 1975-1977 Indira Gandhi military dictatorship – Narayan worked at the grassroots level, together with fellow Sarvodayan anti-authoritarian Vinoba Bhave (1895 -1982), pushing  Sarvodaya very close to anarchism in many regards. Ramnath quotes Narayan: “I am sure that it is one of the noblest goals of social endeavour to ensure that the powers and functions and spheres of the State are reduced as far as possible”. Marshall traces the development of the post-Gandhi Sarvodaya movement from the 1949 formation of the All-India Association for the Service of All (Akhil Bharat Sarva Seva Sangh), an anti-partisan formation aiming at a decentralised economy and common ownership, to its peak in 1969 when the Sarvodaya movement managed to get 140,000 villages to declare themselves in favour of a “modified version of Gramdan” or communal ownership of villages, although in reality only a minority implemented this. Still, this push apparently “distributed over a million acres of Bhoodan [voluntary landowner-donated] land to half a million landless peasants”. 
For Narayan, “decentralization cannot be effected by handing down power from above,” “to people whose capacity for self-rule has been thwarted, if not destroyed by the party system and concentration of power at the top”. Instead, the “process must be started from the bottom” with a “programme of self-rule and self-management” and a “constructive, non-partisan approach”. Ramnath quotes him saying of the state that “I am sure that it is one of the noblest goals of social endeavour to ensure that the powers and functions and spheres of the State are reduced as far as possible…” 
In the Asian anti-imperialist context, the Manchurian Revolution precisely demonstrated the possibilities of Narayan’s vision, but also the necessity of this entailing a revolutionary struggle, rather than mere moralistic appeals to exploitative landlords. This road was mapped out by Ghadar as well as in the vibrant minority stream of East Asian anarchism. In 1929, Korean anarchists in Manchuria, who were waging a fierce struggle against Japan’s 1910 occupation of Korea, formed the Korean Anarchist Federation in Manchuria (KAF-M). The KAF-M and the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF) reached agreement with an anarchist-sympathetic general commanding part of the anti-imperialist Korean Independence Army to transform the Shinmin Prefecture, a huge mountainous valley which lies along the northern Korean border, into a regional libertarian socialist administrative structure known as the General League of Koreans (Hanjok Chongryong Haphoi) or HCH. 
This self-managed anarchist territory was based on delegates from each Shinmin district, and organised around departments dealing with warfare, agriculture, education, finance, propaganda, youth, social health and general affairs. Delegates at all levels were ordinary workers and peasants who earned a minimal wage, had no special privileges, and were subject to decisions taken by the organs that mandated them, like the co-operatives. It was based on free peasant collectives, the abolition of landlordism and the state, and the large-scale co-ordination of mutual aid banks, an extensive primary and secondary schooling system, and a peasant militia supplemented by fighters trained at guerrilla camps. This vital example of an Asian anarchist revolution is grievously understudied, but ranks with Ukraine 1918-1921 and Spain 1936-1939 as one of the great explicitly anarchist/syndicalist revolutions.Fortunately, there first academic study has now been published: Emilio Crisi, Revolución Anarquista en Manchuria (1929-1932), Editorial Libros de Anarres, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2015, for which I wrote the introduction.

c) Contemporary: Shramik Mukti Dal

National Garment Workers' Federation, Bangladesh

The third Indian anarchistic organisation that Ramthath considers in Decolonizing Anarchism is the “post-traditional communist” Shramik Mukti Dal (Toiler's Liberation League), which rose in rural Maharashtra in 1980. She quotes founder Bharat Patankar saying that “revolution means… the beginning of a struggle to implement a new strategy regarding the relationship between men and women and between people of different castes and nationalities. It means alternative ways of organizing and managing the production processes, alternate concepts of agriculture, and of agriculture/industry/ecology, and of alternative healthcare.” The Shramik Mukti Dal that emerges here is one that goes well beyond a backward-looking idealisation of tradition: its manifesto calls for a holistic and egalitarian revolution, assaulting through the transformation of daily life, “the established capitalist, casteist, patriarchal, social-economic structure,” “destroying the power of the current state” and replacing it with an “organized network of decentralized and ecologically balanced agro-industrial centers” – with “a new ecologically balanced, prosperous, non-exploitative society” as its aim. A de facto anarchist position if ever there was.
Yet it is only in very recent years that explicitly anarchist currents have re-emerged in South Asia, strangely none of them named by Ramnath: the National Garment Workers' Federation (NGWF) of Bangladesh, founded in 1984 with offices in Dhaka, Chitagong, Savar and Tongi, boasting 20,000 dues-paying members and 14,900 non-dues-paying members structured into 1,016 factory committees at 28 plants, and its affiliated National Shop Employees' Federation (NSEF), which support the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers' Association (IWA) – both the NGWF and NSEF are still active today; the anarcho-syndicalist Anacho-Sindico in New Delhi which affiliated to the global International Libertarian Solidarity (ILS) network founded in 2001; and the synthesist Indian Anarchist Federation (IAF) founded in Bophal, Madhya Pradesh, India, in 2014 (after Decolonizing Anarchism was published), with a chapter established later in the Indian state of West Bengal, and its initiative started in 2017, the Noam Chomsky Society of India. I am not aware of any current anarchist organisations in Pakistan and Sri Lanka currently.

Anarchist Women in the Colonial Context

Arundhati Roy

Ramnath’s work has highlighted for me – by its absence – the question of where were the leading women in these organisations, especially in light of Har Dayal’s opposition to women’s oppression, and the awe in which she says he held the likes of the Russian anarchist (later Marxist) Vera Zasulich? Latin America saw the rise of many towering female anarchist women, such as La Voz de la Mujer editor Juana Rouco Buela (1889-1969) of Argentina and her close associate, factory worker and Women’s Anarchist Centre organiser Virginia Bolten (1870-1960), syndicalist Local Workers’ Federation (FOL) leader Petronila Infantes (1922- ) of Bolivia, libertarian pedagogue Maria Lacerda de Moura (1887-1944) in Brazil, Magónista junta member María Andrea Villarreal González (1881-1963) and fellow Mexican, the oft-jailed Vésper and El Desmonte editor and poet Juana Belém Gutiérrez de Mendoza (1875-1942), an indigenous Caxcan. In many Latin American countries, women’s workplace strength was such that the anarchist/syndicalist unions had a Sección Feminina, such as the FOL’s powerful Women Workers’ Federation (FOF) – not as a gender ghetto, but because women workers tended to be concentrated in certain industries, especially textiles. 

Is this absence of Indian women revolutionaries due to our lack of sources, or did the anti-colonial struggle and the related national question somehow limit women’s participation? Many of the most prominent women anarchists and syndicalists outside of the West were in postcolonial or in imperialist countries. In colonial Latin America, the feminist syndicalist Louisa Capetillo (1880-1922) of Puerto Rico stands out. Most of the prominent East Asian anarchist women of which we know were located in imperialist Japan: the journalist Kanno Sugako (1881-1911) who was executed for her alleged role in a regicidal conspiracy; the anarchist-nihilist Kaneko Fumiko (1903-1926), who committed suicide in jail after plotting to assassinate the Emperor to protest against Japanese imperialism in Korea; the syndicalist Itō Noe (1895–1923) who was murdered by the police; and writer and poet Takamure Itsue (1894–1964). 
There were, of course, outstanding Chinese anarchist women – notably He Zhen – but of them we know precious little, beyond some of their writings. Again, there are tantalising glimpses in colonial Asia: Wong So-ying, 25, who was jailed for 10 years for attempting to assassinate the British Protector of the Chinese for Selangor, Malaya (Malaysia), in 1925, committing suicide in her cell after the authorities failed to get her to name her co-conspirators; the Lee sisters, Kyu-Suk and Hyun-Suk, who smuggled arms and explosives into the anarchist Shinmin zone in Manchuria in the late 1920s; and Truong Thi Sau, who apparently commanded a guerrilla section of the anarchist Nguyan An Ninh Secret Society in Cochinchina (Vietnam)  in the mid-1920s, languish in the margins of history and have yet to be adequately studied. In India, it is perhaps significant that the lone early woman anarchist-influenced militant who is noted in anarchist records, Sister Nivedita (1867-1911), was born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble in Ireland. It still needs to be explained why it was only in recent years that libertarian socialist Indian thinkers such as the anti-imperialist writer Arundhati Roy (1961 - ), a staunch supporter of Kashmiri autonomy – she has been called a “separatist anarchist” by her enemies – have come to the fore.


Indian Anarchist Federation demonstration, 2016

Both of Ramnath’s books are brave, groundbreaking and vital contributions to the liberation literature of an entire sub-continent. My criticism of some points should not occlude this. Decolonizing Anarchism is written from the perspectives and sensibilities of an activist, while Haj to Utopia from those of a social historian. In some respects, the latter, being the more academic work, is the more detailed and solidly argued, whereas the prior relies to some extent on statements of synthesis reflecting reductions of long internal and external debates, of Ramnath’s personal journey of discovery. They are packed with so many new vistas on the unknown South Asian aspects of anarchist anti-colonialism that they demand repeated readings, which never fail to delight. They should be read in tandem, as together they retrieve a lost set of libertarian socialist (and anarchist) tools once used within a vastly complex culture, and by this process re-legitimise and sharpen the potential today for such anti-authoritarian approaches as  multiple blades directed at the Gordian knot of ethnic identity, post-colonial capitalism and neo-imperialism, within South Asia and globally.