I came across anarchism too late in life to start calling myself an anarchist. At earlier stages I’d enjoyed attaching labels to myself, like ‘leftist’, or ‘Arab’, or ‘Muslim’. I was never a great believer in any of them, but I tried.
When the Arab revolutions made politics real for me, I became suspicious of adopting any labels, given as they referred to me, and politics wasn’t about me any more, not about my fantasies of myself, my need to see myself as on the right side, or my ‘identity’. When the revolutions broke out, and then the counter-revolutions and wars, I understood that real politics concerns the actual struggles of real people in the real world. (I also understood that all identity politics is ultimately a distraction, and one most often used by those in power – or those who aim to achieve power – to divide and rule their subjects). I became suspicious of all grand narratives and all ideological frameworks which assumed there was a perfect solution to human problems as well as a clear path towards it.
So I’m not going to call myself an anarchist. And even if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t, because I am ultimately undecided on the question of whether people could do better without states and hierarchical authority. I’d like to believe that we could run complex modern societies on a horizontal basis more successfully than we do at present, but then I don’t know if I have that much faith in humanity. Perhaps we do need hierarchy of some sort to organise ourselves and to control our anti-social urges, and the best we can hope to do is reform and restrain the hierarchy. I don’t know. I need to read much more and think much more – and even when I do, if I decide I know for sure one way or the other, please ask me to check my arrogance. I’m not capable of knowing. None of us are.
I’ve written a book about Syria with someone who describes herself as an anarchist, and I agree with her on nearly everything. Plus I’ve found anarchists much less likely than leftists to be snagged by allegiance to some state or other. Their conversation on Syria is therefore likely to be much more interesting. At those book events we’ve done which were liberally salted by anarchists, in Seattle, for instance, or Toronto, the discussion was intelligent, nuanced, informed. Compassionate too. I admired the anarchists I met in Spain for several reasons. Most of them at least.
But then Noam Chomsky has been described as an anarchist. Here’s where I get confused, because Chomsky doesn’t usually (or ever?) adhere to what I think are anarchist principles.
I’m not an expert on either Chomsky or anarchist principles, but I’ve seen Chomsky say that what Russia is doing in Syria may be wrong, but it certainly isn’t imperialism. And it’s not imperialism because Russia was invited in by the sovereign Syrian government.
Let’s leave aside that Chomsky began his political career opposing the American imperialist intervention in Vietnam, and that America was invited in by the sovereign South Vietnamese government. The point here is Chomsky’s deference to the notion of state (rather than popular) sovereignty. Is it ‘anarchist’ to think that an unelected mafia which has killed hundreds of thousands of victims and burnt the country it stole has more sovereignty than the people inhabiting that country? That a distant foreign power is not imperialist when it seeks to keep its satrap in his seat by contributing to his crimes? (In that case the British empire wasn’t imperialist either). We know that under the international law written by statesmen, the argument can certainly be made that Russia has not ‘invaded’ Syria, because the official on the local throne asked Russia to come in. But anarchists are supposed to reject such sophistry.
Surely Chomsky is a leftist rather than an anarchist. His very useful work on Palestine-Israel also offers critiques and solutions in terms of states. So I think we can discount him as an example.
There’s also a very large section of people who describe themselves as anarchists and then cheerlead for the Syrian-Kurdish PYD, or its Turkish-Kurdish parent the PKK. This is in part because the PYD/PKK has incorporated, in theory at least, some very interesting and positive ideas and vocabulary from the American anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin. The PYD welcomes Western visitors, gives them a wonderful tour, keeps tabs on them very carefully. It’s done good outreach work, and you can’t fault that.
The first impulse of Western anarchists to show solidarity with the long-oppressed Kurds in their experiment in ‘democratic confederalism’, gender equality, and social justice, is of course a good one. But many, in their enthusiasm, have become blind to certain facts: that despite its undoubted achievements, the PYD remains an authoritarian single party-militia which monopolises violence in its territory, seizes control of aid money, bans other Kurdish parties, and shoots at protestors. That its occupation of Arab-majority towns outside of the Rojava cantons is not ‘democratic confederalism’ but an attempt to build a territorially-contiguous state. That it has enjoyed both Russian and American airpower in its quest for territory, and hosts the first American military base in Syria.
The PYD undoubtedly represents many Syrian Kurds, and is working in a very difficult environment, sinned against (most notably by ISIS, at Kobani) as well as sinning. Within the larger Syrian context it often acts as a counter-revolutionary force, but it has achieved nationalist and to an extent democratic aims for Kurds in the three cantons. It is understandable and good, therefore, that Western anarchists show solidarity.
When the solidarity becomes uncritical, it becomes problematic. When it coheres around the party-militia rather than around the people, it stops being anarchist. When it happily partakes in (repeats, shares, retweets) PYD propaganda, it slips rapidly into racism and Islamophobia. Some ‘intellectual’ anarchists, people who should know better, will rehearse this stuff, about the FSA being a bunch of child-killers, and how ISIS and Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA are all the same, and Turkey too, and the Gulf barbarians…
Do they not realise that this is Assadist as well as PYD propaganda? More than that, that these are the old tropes of European imperialist racism – the favoured minority under threat by the dark, barbaric races that surround, in this case the Arabs, the Muslims, those who can’t do democracy because of their hard-wired culture, who can only be controlled.
At its most extreme, this tendency is manifested in the behaviour of the weird cultish people who closed down our event at the London anarchist bookfair. If one tried to shout over them they joined in chanting ‘PYD’ (and ‘PKK’). When someone in the audience, a Lebanese of Catholic family, spoke back to them, they screamed about him being ‘a Sunni Arab’ – as if this was some awful taint. I left pretty soon. Leila chose to stay, thinking she might find a chance to speak (she didn’t). Once when she did open her mouth, one of the cult screamed at her: “Shut up! This is anarchism! Anyone can speak!” No irony.
But these people, fairly obviously I think, weren’t practising anarchism. Most of the anarchists I’ve criticised above would agree with me here. It was anarchism only in the popular misapprehension of the word, as ‘disorder’. It wasn’t the PYD either. The PYD is more sophisticated, and wouldn’t want to be represented thus. These people weren’t even Stalinists. It wasn’t politics of any kind, but something else.
So people mustn’t blame anarchism for them. And even if the whole Western anarchist tradition, from the intellectuals to the ‘lifestyle’ punksters, does nothing for you at all, still don’t blame anarchism. Because as far as I can see, where anarchism actually exists (rather than being talked about) is usually among people who wouldn’t think for a moment to call themselves anarchists. Even among people who might describe themselves as Muslims.
In terms of practical community cooperation, grassroots democratic self-organisation, and building civil projects without the state, the councils in liberated Syria are anarchist. Some are more hierarchical than others, of course, some dominated by family or tribal leaders, some directly elected, some only indirectly, and so on. They aren’t perfect, because human beings aren’t perfect, and mainly because they haven’t had a chance in their brief existence to discuss political institutions at length. Instead they’re living an emergency that’s gone on for many years, they’re being hit with missiles, artillery, barrels, chlorine, they have a food problem, a water problem, a fuel problem, an electricity problem. Their work is immediate and practical, and therefore non-ideological. That is, they are not implementing an ideological program. The men who talk of that kind of thing are more likely the Islamist fighters, who need ideology to fight with. And ISIS of course, with its statehood plan. And the followers of political parties.
When people ask ‘Who should we support in Syria?’ I should say: in Syria no political party, militia or army is worthy of our wholehearted or uncritical support. No ideology either. What we should support are the community-grown democratic and quasi-democratic institutions and the civilian communities they represent. These people deserve support which is both critical and absolute. Critical because nothing should be uncritical. Absolute because these survivors inside are under continuous and full-scale military assault, beleaguered and at risk of extinction.
It seems to me to be an anarchist principle to support the oppressed against their oppressors.
In this and several other revolutions, anarchism is what has happened when communities became free of the state, free of its services as well as its overbearing impositions. It happened by necessity, and through creative innovation. At European distance the theoretical question becomes: could the most positive, egalitarian and democratic aspects of this social experience provide lessons for societies like these ones here, not at war, relatively stable and prosperous? It’s a question worth asking. But to work up an answer you’d have to think and listen. Play-acting revolution precludes that.