by Billy Wharton
Chair of the Socialist Party USA
Waiting for the next big social protest movement can be frustrating. Activists may find some solace, if not inspiration, from Andrej Grubacic and Staughton Lynd’s book Wobblies and Zapatistas (2008). In it, the leading voice for a new Anarchist movement and the veteran labor activist argue for an unorthodox mixture of Anarchism and Marxism. The mutual hostility between the two ideological positions, the two authors suggest, is a debilitating legacy of the 20th century. In short, they argue, if radical politics are to experience a re-birth, Marxism and Anarchism will need each other.
Lynd and Grubacic have not cooked up an entirely novel formula. Instead, they draw inspiration from early 20th century radical movements that worked on the edges of Anarchism and Marxism. The two believe that the structural analysis provided by Marxism and the commitment to prefiguring transformation that Anarchism offers can be complimentary parts of a new radical politics – a “Haymarket synthesis.” This means drawing on the historical examples of the IWW and the Haymarket martyrs while also examining a movement closer in historical time still underway in Southern Mexico.
Zapatismo from Below
For Lynd, the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico offers a concrete example of a radical movement that combines the best of Marxism and Anarchism. In the 1970s, orthodox Marxists from Mexico City headed south and encountered the deep history of rural Anarchism and indigenismo practiced by peasants in the region. The resulting synthesis allowed these communities to carry out a mass revolt in 1994 in protest of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But this rebellion departed from previous radical movements in that it rejected the taking of state power as a goal. Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos declared the movement “a political force that does not seek to take power.” Instead, and this is an essential point for Lynd, Marcos “leads by obeying.” This translate into abiding by the will of base communities that are focused on carving out spaces of communal autonomy.
These communities have become experiments in anarchist prefiguration – where people live social change in smaller, often local, contexts before attempting to generalize them. Zapatista activists have engineered democratically controlled schools, housing and food while also mounting non-violent challenges to the encroaching Mexican military. For Lynd, this confirms the notion that Anarchism “has dual power built into it.” Building these community projects provides the community with autonomy from the Mexican state while making solidarity a part of everyday life.
However, the Zapatistas do not understand themselves as an entirely local movement. Instead, Lynd emphasizes the groups’ sharp understanding of the international economic and political moment they are operating in. This structural understanding informed by Marxism allows the group to identify the opportunities and limitations offered by current politics and economics and provide them with the ability to anticipate changes.
This allows the Zapatistas to expand the context in which their local initiatives take place by using tools such as the internet to export them internationally. While early commentators identified this factor as being a part of a “post-modern” revolution, Lynd understands it as being linked to the group’s desire to contribute to the creation of a truly global alternative to neoliberalism. A broader Marxist-informed global analysis is needed for this.
Grubacic pushes Lynd to consider how the Zapatista experience relates to previous movements in the US. Not all of the 20th century formations learned the lessons of the Haymarket synthesis that the two wish to propose. This is particularly true of the period of the 60s in the US when militant subjectivities exploded all over the country.
Lynd’s direct experience with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) offers a counterpoint. Lynd refers to SNCC as “the second coming of the IWW.” By this, he means to indicate that this civil rights group practiced the kind of internal democracy and direct action politics that harkened back to previous struggles. By emphasizing action over analysis, SNCC effectively mobilized thousands of activists who practiced solidarity and grassroots democracy in order to break the back of Southern segregation.
However, SNCC ultimately faced a rapid demise after being repulsed at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Lynd identifies the group’s refusal to consider a structural analysis or to take a critical look at broader political developments as a fatal weakness. When the author himself offered SNCC leaders a broader analysis of capitalism, they rebuked him for attempting to impose an ideology onto a movement organically connected to the community.
intense focus on grassroots activism produced dividends as long as the
organizing targets were obvious and the civil rights campaign maintained
momentum. Yet, once the political context shifted, SNCC was cut loose
from its activist moorings and gravitated to a set of Black Power
politics which Lynd termed “humanitarian activism” to express its
distance from everyday life. The base communities that had once looked
to SNCC for leadership now turned away from the new agenda and the group
Recipe for Social Transformation
Through a critical weighing of these successes and failures, Grubacic and Lynd are able to propose some loose principles of what a Haymarket synthesis of Anarchism and Marxism might look like in the 21st century. Such a new movement would certainly create spaces for radical experimentation. Lynd calls this the process of “traveling without a map” – unleashing the anarchist impulse to fashion creative, often ad-hoc, responses to social ills. The two prefer the metaphor of activism as “planting seeds” – some of which perish and others that grow into full bloom.
Such experiments need to share a similar quality. They must, Lynd emphasized, provide a vision for the future that is rooted in daily life. Here the “high-theory” of Marxism needs the “low-theory” of Anarchism to create spaces for concrete acts of resistance. “I do not think,” Lynd argues, “that ordinary persons bleed and die for a vision that they have not experienced.” Libratory politics must express a determination to allow people to experience some of the future their political actions might help carry forward.
The most efficient way to develop such a movement is to practice the political art of accompaniment. Lynd borrows this term from Liberation Theology and uses it to express the desire to march with the poor and oppressed as equals instead of acting as a vanguard force. This does not mean that political movements fetishize or endorse every action carried out by the oppressed, but that as Archbishop Oscar Romero stated, that we “identify with the poor when they demand their rights.” Accompaniment speaks to the need for horizontal relations as opposed to the vertically organized politics that the authors associate with the dictatorships of the 20th century.
Similarly, Lynd, a committed pacifist, suggests that
21st century movements make a commitment to carrying out non-violent
change. One of the negative historical experiences that both Anarchism
and Marxism share, he argues, is the use of violence to make social
change. Lynd uses the historical example of the self-immolation of
Quaker activist Norman Morrison in protest of the Vietnam War in 1965 to
demonstrate the utility of non-violence. Lynd invites readers to
imagine the consequences if Morrison had carried out a violent act
against an Administration official. This would have made the official a
martyr, the act would have been spun as one of extremism and national
determination to continue the war might have hardened. Instead, the
anti-war movement picked up steam after Morrison’s death and news of it
spread even into North Vietnam. When Lynd visited, the North Vietnamese
told him that they were inspired by knowing that at least one American
cared about their loss of Vietnamese lives.
Finally, Lynd cautioned against falling into the trap of viewing social change as an apocalyptic event. There is no single moment where one system ends and another new one begins. This squares well with the notions expressed in the revolutionary transformations underway in Bolivia and Venezuela where participants view themselves as being part of a “process” of socialist transformation that advances at a steady pace. “A transition will,” Lynd proposes, “…express itself in unending creation of self-acting entities that are horizontally linked.”
Fundamentalists Need Not Apply
As political activists in the US face the continuing economic crisis that ensued in 2008 and the looming security and military state created after September 11, 2001, they may draw strength from fashioning their own Haymarket synthesis. Creating a new movement that draws on the best features of Anarchism and Marxism offers an opportunity to re-connect with 20th century radicalism while transforming our society in the present. Wobblies and Zapatistas effectively delivers this message of radical unity. Fundamentalist thinkers on either side of the political ledger need not apply.