April 2012

Originally posted at Anarchist Perspective.

In issue 64 of Mutiny, pseudonymous reviewer ‘Princess Mob’ offered extensive criticism of the new joint publication of Australian anarchist groups, Sedition.

I have already responded to one piece in the new publication here, but I feel that in light of Princess Mob’s review, it is worth responding to Sedition issue 1 is a whole.

The Need for “Sedition”

Sedition is billed as “A Journal of Australian Anarchist Thought”.

In order to develop an Anarchist movement in Australia, Anarchism requires two types of publication for two very different tasks. The first of these tasks is the development of Anarchist theory in the Australian context. A movement requires a theoretical base that understands and offers insights about the situation in which it seeks to operate.

In observing the publications of Anarchist groups in Australia, I argue there are broadly three different approaches to undertaking this task; their merit varies greatly and all are deficient.

The first involves a study of the anarchist tradition of Europe in the 19th century. A worthwhile approach, but only a beginning. At present, our publications show little evidence that anarchists in Australia are taking the ideas of this anarchist tradition and testing them in the Australian context.

The second approach seems to involve observing living Anarchist traditions in other parts of the globe, and trying to import them to Australia. This is a flawed approach, there are no short cuts to undertaking the work of developing Anarchism in the Australian context. A wholly imported tradition, developed in a different context, will not offer meaningful explanation or insight into the Australian situation. This is not to say that an Australian anarchist tradition cannot learn from studying other contexts, but the hard work of testing and developing ideas against the situation in Australia still has to be undertaken.

The third approach is disastrously common. The third approach is to deny there is any need to develop anarchist theory in the Australian context at all. In fact, many deny the need for Anarchist theoretical work full stop. People advancing this approach might argue that Anarchism can mean whatever the beholder wants it to mean, that there is no “right” anarchist approach, and therefore there is no point in seeking to develop it.

This approach is a block to developing any anarchist movement at all. Anarchism in Australia will only be advanced if it is able to offer would be anarchists a set of understandings and insights that ring true, that explain what is happening in the Australian situation, and that offer a way forward in the struggle against capitalism, privilege and domination in all their forms.

I would argue that at present there is no where near enough progress on the development of Anarchism in the Australian context.

A common project to understand anarchism more broadly, to test Anarchist understandings in the Australian context, and to further develop Anarchist ideas in our situation is essential. This common project cannot be confined to one city, or one small group. To bear the greatest fruit this project of understanding, relating and developing theoretical understanding must draw in Anarchists from across Australia geographically and socially.

Anarchism in Australia needs a journal. Initially the audience would be anarchists in Australia. As the level of anarchist thought develops, the scope of the publication can expand, to sharing that body of thought with would be anarchists.

The second task is qualitatively different, and it requires an entirely different type of publication.

Once we begin developing a coherent Anarchist understanding within the Australian situation, the task becomes relating this understanding to concrete events in Australian society.

This second type of publication is aimed at non-anarchists, it’s purpose is to convince non-anarchists of the merits of an anarchist understanding, by showing them that understanding in practice.

This calls for a magazine or newspaper.

At present, no publication by Australian anarchists fulfils either role. Without a developed set of understandings about the Australian situation, Australian anarchist publications have been unable to offer concrete understandings of current events.

The author ‘Princess Mob’ states it is “hard to work out who the intended audience” of Sedition 1 is. This is because the journal contains a mix of articles that “vary from the unfunny in-joke” to “a very introductory article on the Zapatistas”, and that all of these articles are brief, lack depth, and do not engage in sufficient critique.

In that sense, ‘Princess Mob’ and Sedition issue 1 have summed up the malady that is the level of anarchist theoretical understanding and development in Australia.

“A Journal of Australian Anarchist Thought” is desperately needed, as part of a project by Anarchists in Australia to expand their level of theoretical education, and begin the tasks of relating and developing Anarchist understandings in the Australian context.

More Specific Responses

‘Princess Mob’ make a few remarks about the writing style on display in Sedition. It “lacks spark and passion”, it’s “oddly formal, big word, jargon heavy writing” and it lacks precision.

Sedition’s Editorial Collective could take a more involved role, encouraging authors to better develop and express their thoughts, rather than simply compile what has been submitted. An anarchist theoretical journal cannot simply be a grab bag, compiling whatever dross individuals deigned to submit.

‘Princess Mob’ states that “An editorial collective with a defined political commonality could explore political ideas in more depth”. If Sedition is intended as a journal for developing Anarchism in the Australian context, then this doesn’t have to be the case. A journal of anarchist thought should be a forum for disagreement about ideas, but the editorial collective do need to have a vision to make it such.

‘Princess Mob states that:

Brendan Libertad’s article on the philosophical origins of anarchism is a partisan argument disguised as neutral history.

Anarchists, of all people, understand that history is not neutral!

Anarchists in Australia need to have an argument about Anarchism’s philosophical origins. It affects our practice if we believe that anarchism is something innate in all people through out time, rather than a relatively modern response born of the industrial era.

A realistic assessment of what anarchism is and where it comes from, is a necessary basis for embarking on the further work of developing that theory in the Australian context.

In that respect, Brendan’s article was probably the most substantive in issue one of Sedition.

I have already responded to Jeremy’s article, ‘Organising in Australia’, at some length.

Gab’s ‘Casualisation & Flexible Work: How far can the Bosses Push Before We Snap’ offers a brief description of an issue that Anarchists should engage with, but doesn’t undertake the task of looking at it in terms of Anarchist theory.

The arguments about media engagement that Nick A summarises would, one hopes, be non-issues if Anarchists in Australia had a better understanding of who they were and what they’re on about. Anarchist practice must flow from a solid anarchist understanding of the situation we are operating in, and debates about “complicity, traitors and compromise” show that this understanding is presently lacking.

‘Princess Mob’ describes Ash’s piece on Occupy Sydney as “politically confused”, an understatement.

Ash writes:

And what are we asking for? Just that the authorities tolerate a hundred or so citizens occupying a few dozen square metres of their own city.

The tactical purpose of an occupation is, if anything, to create a situation that cannot be ignored, that has to be responded to.

Ash writes as if surprised by the hostility of city authorities and the brutality of the Police!

The piece on animal liberation again highlights the confused ideas that exist about the nature of anarchism, fortunately someone (one of the editors I presume) has taken the time to rebut this nonsense.

‘Princess Mob’ describes the article on Zapatismo as “introductory” and the piece on Intersectionality as “far to brief” . In a sense that could describe Sedition issue 1 as a whole.

Sedition issue 1 provides an interesting baseline. It’s content may indicate the shallow depth of current anarchist theory in Australia, but it’s existence shows that at least some Australian anarchists are beginning the work of developing Anarchism in the Australian context.

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Originally posted at Anarchist Perspective.

Sedition, a new journal of Australian anarchism, was launched 10 March 2012, I’ve taken my sweet time in getting around to read it.

A few points of response to Jeremy’s[1] ‘Organising in Australia’, Sedition #1, pp 2-4.

The Situation in Australia

Jeremy offers a brief description of the present situation facing anarchists seeking to organise in Australia. In his opening remarks he states:

The Australian system of capitalism and government offers a range of comforts and opportunities to the exploited in order to keep us docile.

Australia does have a comparatively advanced system of social supports available to the working class; public education, healthcare and social security. But to describe these as ‘offered’ is inaccurate.

Healthcare, education and social security are concessions wrought from capitalism by the working class as a result of struggle. These concessions are under constant attack, by a capitalist state that would happily place the burden of paying for these things directly upon the working class if it could.

There is a delicate balance of attack and pacification, mediated by a variety of institutions, the union movement and the labour party in particular.

Later in the article Jeremy states:

There is widespread discontent and resistance among millions of people in Australia. They talk to each other and build networks and take a variety of political action.

This is mistaken.

At present, there is no widespread discontent in Australia. There is a high level of dissatisfaction with the current political leader, but it is expressed only in terms of an intent to vote for someone else. There is no widespread discontent with the system, and there is no widespread resistance to it.

As Jeremy mentions earlier in the article, there is a pervasive system of propaganda by which the dominant ideology is maintained in Australian society. At the present time, this system is working, and the vast majority of Australians accept the dominant assumptions, Australians still accept the idea that “this is as good as it gets”.

Discontent and resistance are presently marginal in Australian society.

There are however small opportunities.

The Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement of 2011 have resonated with a small subsection of Australian society.

Indigenous Australian discontent with the Northern Territory intervention continues, and the spread of welfare quarantining to the rest of Australia will affect Australians in major population centres for the first time.

A minority of Australians continue to be disgusted with the treatment of refugees, and resistance inside the system of immigration detention centres continues.

The decline of the manufacturing sector is accelerating and the mediocre response of mainstream unions, the Labor party and the government could cause discontent amongst some workers in that sector.

The election of conservative governments at the state level has seen a new round of attacks on public services, which the union movement has been more assertive in responding too.

The storm clouds of global financial crisis continue to grow on the horizon, whilst Australia has thus far been isolated, the situation continues to cause a sense of unease. Were a deepening of the global crisis to significantly affect Australia, the situation for Australian workers could change rapidly, and resistance could develop or falter in any number of ways.

In summary, the scope for anarchist organising is presently limited, discontent and resistance are low, but the scope for the advancement of anarchist ideas in our society does exist.

Realism is far more important than optimism .

The Union Movement

The organising model is a step forward, but ultimately unions continue to operate as if they were a sort of specialist business within capitalism. It is up to activists and agitators to join our unions, work to democratise them and bring anti-capitalist politics into the organising model.

I am not presently in a position to assess Jeremy’s remarks about the union movement.

I do agree, on the basis of Jeremy’s description, that the organising model that Australian unions now increasingly adopt is an improvement on the service model, and offers a growing chance for anarchists to make tentative links to the union movement.

Every anarchist should be a union activist in their workplace. This seems a far more realistic strategy for building links to the industrial struggle than any attempt to build a new syndicalist union.

Anarchist Organising in Australia

I am in wholehearted agreement with Jeremy’s argument that Anarchists in Australia must organise.

Anarchists who oppose political organising in effect support the continuing status quo. The ongoing attacks of capitalism may, from time to time, provoke seemingly spontaneous displays of resistance, even political crises. But unless anarchists organise and work to build a mass, conscious, culture of resistance, capitalism will survive every crisis and defeat every example of ‘spontaneous’[2] resistance.

Jeremy is right to note the difference between the political routine that the Leninist groups engage in and the problems with their “authoritarian, opportunistic and dishonest” approach to organising.

The political routine of selling papers, conducting stalls, holding public meetings and so on can be undertaken by anarchists without “treating people as numbers or sheep, to be recruited and then managed and used”. In fact, it is essential we do this if we are to build something resembling a real anarchist movement in Australia.

Jeremy relates what the Jura collective have undertaken in the past year. Every anarchist in Australia who is serious about throwing off the shackles of hierarchy and exploitation needs to look at what a small group like Jura has been able to do.

We can and must organise as anarchists.

There is no waiting for the revolution, get organised now.

1. Disappointingly, each article in issue 1 of Sedition is attributed to a pseudonym or to a first name only. A rather unnecessary step for a movement that is not underground.[Back]

2. There is no such thing as mass spontaneous resistance. What appears spontaneous is the product of organising we haven’t accounted for.[Back]

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Originally posted at Anarchist Perspective, where there has been some interesting discussion about the state of the IWW, and the value of Anarchist engagement with Trotskist organisations and ideas.

Socialist Alternative’s Marxism 2012 was, for this anarchist, worth the effort.

The Easter long weekend sees Socialist Alternative’s yearly Marxism Conference held at Melbourne University, and after a couple of years of false starts, this year I was finally able to attend.

Naturally my keenness to engage with this conference raises the occasional eyebrow. The objection I get from anarchists when I suggest engaging with this or similar events, “It’s not worth the effort”, “there are real struggles to engage with”, and so on.

Of all the small Marxist groups on the far left in Australia, Alternative’s political orientation should be of the greatest interest to Anarchists.

Their position that the so-called socialist countries after WWII were not socialist but “state capitalist” class societies bears more than a passing resemblance to an Anarchist description of these states. Alternative rejects the dictatorships in Cuba, Vietnam and elsewhere, and do not foster delusions about the nature of events in Venezuela and Bolivia. Alternative does not carry the baggage of having to simultaneously reject their connection to Stalin whilst defending the legacy of Stalinists in Cuba (and elsewhere).

As a result of this positioning, of all the vanguardist groups in Australia, Socialist Alternative has been the one that has been able to recruit an increasing number of the university students who arrive on major city campuses with some basic interest in the ideas of the left.

Socialist Alternative is growing in significance within the small pond that is the far left in Australia. They are probably correct in their claim to be the largest far left grouping in Australia at present (related discussion at Slackbastard). Their presence at demonstrations, the readership of their magazine and website, and (importantly for this article) the scope of interest from outside their party in their yearly conference, are probably more important measures of their growing influence that a raw count of dues paying members (~250).

And Anarchists exist within the far left. We exist within the small activist milleu who’s far left element is increasingly dominated by Socialist Alternative.

Any attempt to claim otherwise is self deluding. There is no significant separate anarchist movement in Australia. There are no social movements heavily influenced by anarchist ideas. There is no real presence by anarchism in the union movement.

The IWW in Australia at present is NOT a union. Individual activists within the IWW and individual anarchists are members of larger unions, some are even delegates. None is in a position to bring anarchist ideas to a wider audience. The IWW is at present in the same position as other small groups on the far left, trying to convince individuals of the merits of their ideas, one by one. It is at present no mass vehicle through which anarchists can advance their ideas.

The criticisms of the insular world of social issue activists circles and what passes for the student movement are valid. The activism milleu is not the wider of Australian society, and it does not at present offer anarchists the means to advance their ideas to people outside this milleu. It is insular, it does have an air of unreality about it.

But the fact is that this is where anarchism in Australia is presently located. There are no other great avenues through which anarchist ideas can be advanced, no other areas in society into which anarchists are embedded. In the present situation, refusing to engage in the struggle of ideas within this milleu is the same as refusing to advance the ideas of anarchism at all. We have to start with an understanding of where we are.

Which brings me to Marxism 2012.

Socialist Alternative is an organisation of no more than three hundred members. This years conference at Melbourne University drew nearly one thousand participants. These were a whole cohort of people with whom anarchists should want to engage.

Of course the formal conference structure offered little to no broad opportunity that anarchists could use to engage with these people as a group. All sessions were chaired by Socialist Alternative members, and all but the international speakers were well versed members of socialist alternative. The question and answer sessions that followed gave some small forum for different views, but only within a structure that saw them heavily rebutted by Socialist Alternative members, before discussion was capped off by a Socialist Alternative chair.

As a project of Socialist Alternative, we should expect nothing less from this conference!

But even within this structure there were still a multitude of opportunities.

The biggest opportunity is to learn. In order to engage in a contest of ideas, it pays to have a more accurate understanding of the ideas others are advancing, rather than to simply try and engage with straw men and caricatures. It was apparent in this conference that Socialist Alternative members do not have that advantage when it comes to engaging with the ideas anarchism. It pays for anarchists to experience the level of critique a product of Socialist Alternative’s process of political education has of anarchism, and to practice engaging with it in a respectful manner (I struggled!).

Moving away from the narrow issue of what Socialist Alternative had to say about anarchism in this conference, it pays for anarchists to understand in a more sympathetic way where the largest grouping on the far left has come from, and how they understand their ideas. “They’re all authoritarian! KRONSTADT and STALIN!!!” is not a sufficient basis of understanding for engaging the ideas of this or any group.

Then there is the opportunity to learn about things we agree on! Anarchists critically appropriate Marxist political economy; any attempt to deny or cover this up is self defeating, and simple declaring “Marx plagiarised Proudon!!!” is both silly and inaccurate. There is not an anarchist I have met in Australia who would not do well to advance their understanding by studying and critiquing what Marxists are saying about economics and history. The series at the conference was genuinely interesting and enlightening. I am not saying we should ever remove the guard of critical engagement.

Then there is the opportunity to learn about struggles in the wider world. Simply by organising the largest far left event in this country, Alternative is able to attract speakers from struggles around the world. Filtered through the prism of Socialist Alternative interpretation they may have been, they were still absolutely wonderful sources of information and inspiration for anarchists.

Every anarchist who rejected attending this conference because it was not worth the effort missed the chance to hear about a seven month occupation of university campuses in Chile in the struggle for free education. A struggle that has brought together and resulted in significant political debates between Lenninists and Anarchists in Chile.

There were first hand accounts of struggles from the Philippines, Afghanistan, the US Occupy Movement, Japan, Palestine and others. Every one of these sessions were absolutely worth putting up with the strictures of a conference hosted by a vanguardist organisation!

Then there was the chance to observe, observe the products of Socialist Alternative’s process. Observe the way young members approached you, and asked the SAME questions every time, and tried to lead you into the SAME conversation every time. There was the chance to observe how the leading lights of this organisation and younger members interacted. Observe the things that lead unaligned participants to grate at the process.

I always find it fascinating to try and observe and interpret what I am seeing of the dynamic of an organisation in different situations. It is far more useful to be able to discuss this organisation based on conversations with its members and your own observations than to simply rely on the rumour and name calling that amounts to understandings of an organisation form the outside.

And there is the opportunity to test.

This was something I consciously decided to avoid at Marxism 2012. Gatherings like this offer us a chance to test our understandings and argument against the body of ideas we inevitably have to critique or argue against in broader settings.

As a lone anarchist, who acknowledges how much more I still have to learn, I did not feel confident in fully utilising the opportunity this conference presented to get up and argue for an anarchist alternative, either in question and answer sessions or in the informal social gatherings. Next year I would like to!

But purely in terms of emotional self defence, I think this will require organising a small group of anarchists to attend the conference. Because the other thing that has to be said about this conference, was that as someone who is not a member of Socialist Alternative and who does not passively agree with everything I am presented, this conference was incredibly hard work.

In simple terms of self care, it would have paid to have small group prepared to the atmosphere of event so totally dominated by an organisation so hostile to anarchism, who could debrief at the end of the day over a beer.

I will be attending Marxism 2013. It’s already booked in, and I have no doubt Socialist Alternative will again muster an impressive range of speakers and (in terms of Australia’s far left) a gathering well in excess of their own membership. I hope that anarchists who want to grow an anarchist movement on the far left in Australia will consider joining me.


Alternative is progressively publishing videos of the major sessions on Youtube, and audio recordings of the minor sessions (the most interesting in terms of studying and engaging Alternative in my opinion) will be available on CD in the coming months.

Two absolute highlights of the conference were Malalai Joya (video and my thoughts here) and Saeed Amireh. Saeed’s presentation alone… just watch it.

Other Reviews

Socialist Alliance’s Sue Bolton, writing in Green Left Weekly, welcomed the broader focus on this years “Marxism Conference”, noting that Socialist Alternative had invited a larger number of international speakers and invited other far left groups to have stalls at the event, however –

the discussion could be even richer if the event evolved to become a conference of the whole left, including speakers from other socialist groups and allowing these groups to have workshops.

Socialist Alternative member and blogger John Passant argues that the conference shows

that Socialist Alternative is an organisation serious about understanding the world around it, engaging with it and changing it where possible

And Humphrey McQueen declared in his review, written and published before the event, that Marxism 2012 was “evading the class struggle”.

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