Rethinking Anarchism: Carlos Taibo (8)

What follows below is the 8th Chapter of Carlos Taibo’s Rethinking Anarchy: Direct Action, Self-Management, Autonomy (La Catarata, Madrid, 2013).  This chapter addresses the complex relationship between anarchism, nationalism and the nation-State, as well as the issue of anarchism’s ability to speak people of the South.  We have already translated and posted the “Prologue” and the “Chapter 1″ of this work (Click here), “Chapter 2″ (Click here), “Chapter 3″ (Click here), “Chapter 4” (click here), “Chapter 5” (Click here), “Chapter 6” (Click here) and “Chapter 7” (Click here).  And we hope to continue in what will be the complete translation of the book.  In this way we aim to share with English readers the work of one of the most significant anarchist voices today in spain.

Chapter 8: Nations, Anarchisms of the South

The National Question and Anarchism

Some months ago, one of the publications of one of the anarcho-syndicalist forces active among us expressed an idea that was not without significance. Referring to the period before the Spanish Civil War, it stated: “The anarchists did not support independence”. Few domains have been as muddy as that which concerns the relation between anarchism and the national question. How could an anarchist be a nationalist?, people ask who on occasion are themselves fully immersed, perhaps without knowing it, in the logic of State nationalism. How could anarchists distance themselves – others ask – from a national question that is at the heart of many of the disputes relative to State formation and its democratic nature?

At some point in the past, I suggested that there are only two reasonable ways to confront the national question. While the first suggests that since the 19th century, and on a significant part of the planet, political communities articulate themselves unequivocally and unavoidably in the form of nations which are, to borrow Anderson’s expression, imagined communities, while the second considers that nations are artificial and interested constructions that respond to the blatant aim of setting aside the class struggle and thereby assuring the corresponding privileges of the bourgeoisie. On paper, the latter was the overwhelmingly dominant view held by the libertarian movement, with the consequence that it pretended to not notice in any way the disputes – knowingly intense – and the positions that gave body to the national question.

I am afraid that in relation to the libertarian view, that matters are nevertheless more complex. I will emphasis, without going further, that there are anarchist thinkers – for example, Bakunin – who perceive in nations a natural, or almost natural, reality, which is not in itself seen as an obstacle to the necessarily universalist and internationalist character of the libertarian project. “As a Slav, I wanted the emancipation of the Slavic race from the yoke of the Germans by means of revolution, that is, through the destruction of the Russian, Austrian, Prussian and Turkish empires, and with the reorganisation of peoples, from bottom to top, with their freedom, on the basis of a complete economic and political equality, and not be means of the force of an authority, however revolutionary it claims to be and however intelligent it is in fact”, wrote the famous Bakunin.(1) One of the recurrent elements in the work of the Russian anarchist, in addition, is the idea that the social revolution is inseparable from the liberation of subjected peoples. What is certain is that for Bakunin, far from proposing a nationalism that embraced the State, what he defended was a very different short term goal, grounded in a revolutionary and federalist project. As things were, and if we follow the views that I have just summarised, one fails to do justice to reality when it is affirmed that from the perspective of libertarianism, that internationalism and nationalism are diametrically opposed phenomena.

Among anarchist thinkers, there is no dissension, by contrast, with respect to a criticism of something that has to be understood as present in the overwhelming majority of manifestations of nationalism: that which identifies in them an omnipresent statist stake that reveals itself with particular force, obviously, in State nationalisms; an argument that was certainly powerfully expressed by Rudolf Rocker in Nationalism and Culture.(2) In parallel, strong criticisms stand out, again, of nationalism as an inter-classist phenomenon and at a certain moment is expressed a certain mistrust distinction that separates nations which oppress and nations which are oppressed, which seems to ignore that within each one of these cases there are very different realities and also, logically, very different classes.

Even though it is not common in libertarian thought to forget the ascendancy of State nationalisms – those silent nationalisms that would seem not to exist –, I will admit that problems have not been absent as regards this matter. It can be recalled that in the Catalan libertarian world of pre-1939, disputes with many immigrant workers who seemed not to accept in any way the culture and the language of the country where they had arrived were frequent. Among us, and in addition, the libertarian movement accepted with excessive frequency, and with no wish to discuss them, organisational formulas that copied to a considerable degree institutional-administrative State forms. Palpable traces of this are evident in the National Confederation of Labour [CNT] or the different regional committees. And it was in no way evident, it can be said in passing, that the defence of an Iberian project resolved the confusion: in the end, the formula in question carried with it an entity configured by two States, indeed, often impregnated by imperial adornments. It is clear that, contrary to the direction of the argumentation that is presently under consideration, it has always been an easy matter to appreciate the very close relation between the Catalan libertarian movement and the corresponding national demand. A stronger relation, for sure, in the case of anarcho-syndicalism, and especially in syndicalist elements of this last, a phenomenon that is well illustrated in the book by Termes that I have cited on various occasions.

If I must express my convictions – they are very close to those included in the collective book Anarquisme i alliberament nacional (3) – with regards to how best to face up to the national question, from the perspective of libertarian thought, I would say first that it does not seem fruitful to disagree on what this signifies, something which in no way implies accepting that the nationalist proposal is the master formula for confronting the issue (it certainly seems wise beforehand to clarify what must be understood by nationalism). The second recommendation suggests that, at the time that such matters are taken up, that it is necessary to attend to the development and the actions of State nationalism, given that otherwise it is very easy to animate dramatic distortions of complex realities. I will point out thirdly that it is suitable to separate the terms nationalism and independence. The demand for this last need not translate into the parallel demand for the creation of a State, with its own army. Independence should arise from the accumulation of prior independencies that proceed from below: from the individual, the communal, the local …, since what is vital is – it must be supposed – to liberate oneself from oppressions. This is what logically it means to make oneself independent. Fourthly, I want to point boundless suspicion before all macro-structures – the EU, for example – that capital has shaped, in open dissonance with the perception of those who see only advantages in a ground up integration. I will add, lastly, that whatever the excesses that surround the principle of free determination, and its corresponding law, one and the other are preferable to their negation, unless, obviously, we declare ourselves proudly hostile to the cause of democracy and we defend thoroughly existing States.

Anarchism in the South of the Planet

I am obliged to proffer a few comments on a discussion that, though not frequent, has nevertheless its importance: is perhaps anarchism not one more expression of a visibly Eurocentric perception that reproduces to perfection this perspective and is therefore incapable of travelling across borders or, in effect, when it does so, carries with it codes and ways of doing that are exclusive to the geographical areas from which it originates?

It would be absurd to deny the pertinence of the question, as it would be to assume without further ado that a negative answer to it resolves the matter. That such Eurocentric and, ultimately, colonial spasms, have been able to manifest themselves at some point seems beyond discussion. Even then, three responses can be formulated. The first stresses the permanent compromise of anarchism with contesting colonisations and imperialisms: as Benedict Anderson has revealed, anti-colonial discourse has always had a consistent presence in libertarian thought.(4) I will admit however that one thing is the relation of anarchism with the contestation of colonialism and another is the effective deployment of anarchism in the affected countries, during and after colonisation.

I believe nevertheless that we are closing our eyes to reality – and this is the second response – if we forget that movements of a strictly anarchist character have not been absent in many of the countries of the south of the planet. It is sufficient to mention the names of China – where in the past there was a significant anarchist movement –, of Palestine or of India – two places where a libertarian presence continues to make itself felt –, or, of course, Latin America, where the waves of Spanish, Portuguese and Italian migrations had and has as a consequence a notable presence of libertarian organisations.(5)

A third and last response can be stated; something that places us in an order of facts different from what has already concerned me: one that recalls the obvious existence of libertarian practices – I use this adjective here for it is clearly more appropriate – in many of the human communities of the countries of the south. It is not a case obviously of mimetic imitations of what is demanded by anarchists of the north. I speak rather of communities which exude a libertarian way of life, and which challenge the logic of colonisation and western values. Such is the case with for example African communalism or with many indigenous peoples of Latin America. I am thinking of human communities which, by the way, do not always adjust themselves to the particular stereotype forged in the heat of what is proposed by anarcho-primitivism, which in some cases, and contrary to appearances, is nothing but the expression of perceptions rooted in the opulent north and its corresponding games rules. It is more than obvious, in the end, that the condition of these communities owes nothing to preconceptions that have inspired classical anarchism, even more so when these last frequently answer to much more diffuse conceptions of class. This situation obliges one to recognise then that on many occasions, explicit anarchist movements based in the countries of the south, committed to reproducing an ideological canon that arrived from the north of the planet, followed very different paths from those marked vitally by libertarian practices of the better part of the native inhabitants of these countries.

  1. Quoted in Lehning, op. cit., p. 102.
  2. Rudolf Rocker, Nacionalismo y cultura. La Piqueta, Madrid, 1977.
  3. VV AA, Anarquisme I alliberament nacional. Catarco/La Cuitat Invisible/Col.Lectiu Negres Tempestes/Virus, Barcelona, 2007.
  4. Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags. Anarchism and the Anti-colonial Imagination. Verso, London, 2005.
  5. See Barret, op. cit.
  6. Sharif Gemie, in Graham, op. cit., p. 324.
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