Are today’s anarchists movement builders?

Body-armor clad protesters in Los Angeles. PHOTO: Matt Gush
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Squads of black-clad youth duking it out with cops is a familiar sight nowadays. Trump singled out this brand of anarchist, specifically antifa, as domestic terrorists. The far right then blamed them for everything from the California forest fires to the violence at the U.S. Capitol. This vilification, parroted by the mainstream media, is a strike against the entire left, and must be countered.

But who are these anarchists and how are they affecting the movements for change? As there are many types of anarchists, including lifestyle ones and labor organizers, this article will focus on the tactics and ideologies of Black Bloc and antifa.

First a clarification on the term antifa, which stands for anti-fascist. In Europe, antifa is associated with socialists, while in the U.S., anarchists primarily claim the name. “No free speech for fascists” is the U.S. antifa anarchist motto.

As for the term Black Bloc, it describes the anonymous, masked, black-uniformed protesters.

Delving into tactics. Along with anti-fascist organizing, anarchists take up many just causes, including the fight against police abuse and outing right-wing operatives. The difficulty arises in how they do it.

“Respect diversity of tactics” is their mantra. And it is a good approach when used to involve a wide variety of folks in an effort. For example, arranging for those who cannot be arrested to support those planning civil disobedience. Groups can, and should, democratically decide on these tactics.

For the Black Bloc, though, the concept is license to do whatever they want regardless of others. Their activities can hijack events, put people in harm’s way and create resentment. Most damaging is when this approach dulls the power of mass opposition with separate actions at differing times or locations.

Their most controversial tactic is property destruction, seen as striking a blow against the system, a defiant act of ungovernability. In Black Lives Matter protests, they encouraged window smashing and taunted those who advocated non-violent marches as “peace police.” Unfortunately, too often, vandalism became the news story, overshadowing the issue of racist murders by police and creating divisions among allies.

Of course, antifa do more than advocate property destruction. They target vicious white supremacists in street fights to shut the fascists down. Alas, this approach leaves out countless who oppose the ultra-right but don’t support violence. The alternative is mass, disciplined labor-backed demonstrations that outnumber, demoralize and shut down the neo-Nazis. Educating that fascism is the most dire form of capitalism and how to fight it is also crucial.

Some anarchists goad the police to attack, then hide among other rally-goers. They hope that the brutality of cops will be seen as representative of the entire system and turn folks against capitalism. In fact, it often turns folks against these street agitators for putting everyone at risk of pepper spray or arrest, particularly problematic for undocumented activists.

A new style. “Old-school” anarchists were focused on class struggle, mass resistance and labor organizing. Today’s anarchists, while still anti-capitalist, are influenced by radical ecology, feminism, and the people of color and queer liberation movements. Their rallying cry is “No to All Domination.”

They operate in small, localized affinity groups based on non-hierarchical relations. Because they abhor formal leadership, they call themselves autonomists or anti-authoritarians. They value direct clandestine action and provide no blueprint for liberation.

Most of these rebels don’t consider either liberals or leftists as allies. Why? Because they view every institution and their participants — unions, schools, political parties, the family — as oppressors. So, labor activists and leftists are spurned. They shun liberals because they work for reforms which anarchists believe only serve to strengthen the enemy.

In Black Lives Matter, anarchists promote the solution “Abolish/Defund the police” and reject all reform efforts. This is the case with the campaign for an Elected Civilian Review Board (ECRB) which the Freedom Socialist Party initiated in New York City. But what these abolitionists ignore is that the only way to eradicate the police is by first destroying capitalism. They fail to see the larger purpose of working with liberals, unionists and others to demand community control of the police — including the power to fire killer cops now.

Which way for revolution? Some older anarchists are warning that their younger cohorts are becoming isolated and inward-focused.

The new generation prioritizes creating safe spaces to practice egalitarian living. They hope occupying such spaces will hollow out the system as similar zones spread across the land. This was the overarching aim of Occupy Wall Street and the 2020 cop-free encampment of CHOP in Seattle, anarchist-influenced experiments in horizontalism.

Many anti-authoritarians have put revolution on the back burner. Their pessimism towards radical change explains why they have no desire or method for promoting a mass uprising against the 1%. For them, being ungovernable is enough. Most leftists would disagree.

There is a strategy to create systemic change that provides a way for disparate left forces to work with each other and with liberals. It is called the united front. Developed by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, it allows the working class to unite over specific goals while retaining their independent beliefs. Leadership is always in the hands of the working class.

United fronts are desperately needed today to unify workers against reactionaries. Anarchists, Marxists, social democrats and liberals should form such a united front. On the West Coast in the 1990s, FSP worked with labor militants, queer and Black activists, feminists, Jews and the homeless in a united front to push the white supremacists back under their rock. This technique can and does work.

To be a revolutionary requires optimism based in a concept of what is wrong and a plan on how to fix it. That is what revolutionary socialist feminism offers that modern anarchism lacks.

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