To Hear and Be Heard: Anarchy and Critique

PSA. July 23:

The anarchist project is one of constant dialogue and critique. Our ideas are not separate from our actions; theory is not separate from practice. Through the course of our activities it becomes necessary to reevaluate our positions in relation to events. As anarchists we do not offer an answer or solution to the world’s problems, but instead a lens through which to critique and act upon it. We should always be suspicious of those who claim to know, to have an answer or truth, especially from those who also call themselves anarchists but are not open to dialogue. This is how thoughts crystallize into ideology, into unquestionable positions. It is imperative that our ideas do not become static, that we remain dynamic in response to our environment.

The adherence to ideologies lessens our ability to hear and be heard by one another. With the wide variety of positions anarchists take, there must be room for criticism and debate, as it allows for a sharpening of analysis and a deepening of understanding, of ourselves as anarchists and our positions in relation to each other. The following is an analysis of left anarchists’ tendency to launch unfounded accusations instead of engaging in a critical dialogue. Sometimes it seems that those who question the authority of a false unity are committing an act of heresy. In response I would posit the question: what position is more appealing, that of adherent or heretic?

Appeals to the Community: A Flattening of Difference.

Appeals to the community are often used to legitimize an argument. The problem is that the community is not a singular entity, it is a loaded concept that can be used by just about anyone, friend or foe. What determines a community? I would claim that communities cannot truly exist in a capitalist state due to the alienation inherent in our social conditions. There is a tendency in the Left to refer to one’s activist milieu as “The Community.” The community becomes an authority one must adhere too. But appeals to authority are a logical fallacy used to prop up arguments which are unable to fully support themselves. The Community is an abstraction that flattens differences and imposes a false unity dictated by our lowest common denominators. Those who believe in the legitimacy of this abstract authority will see critique and discussion of differences as a sort of heresy.

Cries of sectarianism or divisiveness soon follow. Discussions of differences highlight the false unity that bind a supposed community together. Attacking the authority of an abstraction may cause anxiety in those who adhere to them. Those on the Left who believe in the community as a legitimizing force of authority will see those who question the legitimacy as heretics, as superstitious or childish. Sectarianism is not the same thing as critical dialogue over differences. Sectarianism is most often hurled at anarchists from anti-capitalist statists such as the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, or the Revolutionary Communist Party for not coming together as a united front against capitalism. They claim that we can discuss our differences later, after the revolution perhaps. However there is a history of anarchists involved in revolutions with a united front, and it frequently ends with the gulag or the guillotine.

It is not sectarian to refuse compromise, this instead highlights a lack of affinity. Actual affinity is a deep and reciprocal knowledge of one another’s positions and ideas, an understanding of the the shared desires and intentions between comrades. Affinity is not agreement upon vague principles, or adherence to the same cause. It is shared ideas and practices to the point that individuals may move forward together, share projects and engage in struggles alongside one another without compromise. A critical evaluation of what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we are doing it is necessary to keep our analysis sharp. We should be open to criticism that is in good faith. We can only become stronger by this sort of engagement. Anarchism is not a static ideology that is forever unchanging, but it does have parameters that define it. Having differences is not ideological, but refusing to discuss them is.

Criticism is Not a Party-Line, Affinity is Not a Vanguard.

Anarchists holding a shared position is not a party-line, and it is not vanguardist to offer this critique to others. There will never be a time where all anarchists share the same exact opinions or affinities, nor is this something that anarchists should even strive towards. But it is essential that anarchists be able to offer and receive criticism from others for actions or ideas they do not agree with. Anarchists reject all forms of political parties, as they are a permanent organization whose only role is representation. If there comes a time where I can longer agree with someone and the difference is irreconcilable, we simply stop working together. There is no permanent body enforcing on anyone what they should do or what they should say. That is not to say that affinity groups don’t have motives, even ideological ones, because they most certainly can.

There is a certain hyper-defensiveness that plagues the activist community. The idea that “anarchy” means a person doing whatever they want. While in general I agree with this idea, the activists miss one large point, that a person’s anarchist project must work to undermine both the state and capital. I am not interested in policing people’s identities, I am interested in critiquing people when I see their analysis fall short. Because so much of the Left is rooted in identity politics, it is not surprising that many activists become hyper-defensive and feel that they must defend their anarchist credentials when they are being critiqued, not understanding that it is their ideas that are being called into question, not their identity. More than one person sharing the same critique and expressing said critique to that person is not a vanguard, nor is it enforcing a party-line. It is an affinity that comrades share. While the anarchist project is one of everyone being able to actualize their own desires, both individually and collectively, that does not mean that there is no room for criticism. Different anarchists have different ideas on how to effectively combat the state and capital, but criticizing another’s actions or positions in no way amounts to vanguardism.

Equating disagreement and criticism as vanguardism or a party-line shuts downs debate and isolates both positions from one another, instead of coming to an (even if hostile) understanding of the differences between us. These differences necessitate conversation, critique and debate. When we pretend that these differences do not exist the result is a false unity, bitterness, and resentment. There is irony is that on one hand, discussion that may highlight division is discouraged, while on the other, those who share an affinity and critique are accused of toting a party-line. This intolerance of critique is much closer to a party-line than any of the supposedly divisive criticisms that may be exchanged. The idea that anarchists who disagree with each other can only offer critique in the meekest manner possible usually results in a conversation where the majority of the content is hidden behind non-violent communication rhetoric. The activist circle then becomes more insular, something that cannot be critiqued because they have invested so much of themselves into their positions they they cannot separate themselves from it. Even more problematic is when one does offer a valid critique, they see it as an attack on their community, not their ideas, and as such they become hostile and defensive.

The necessity for critical evaluation of anarchist practice is something that should never be overlooked. These conversations will only lead to a strengthening of our analysis, and thus our attacks. Ideas are not separate from actions. If we wish to engage one another directly, without relying on straw men and assumptions, it is urgent that we hear one another, and be heard by each other.

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