Anarkismo a brief history and the Paris conference of European anarchist groups

Nestor Makhno memorialAt the start of February I traveled to Paris for the weekend to take part in a conference of the European anarchist groups affiliated to Anarkismo.net, this blog gives some history of the development of Anarkismo.net and the events of this particular conference. Three of us traveled over for the WSM to meet up with a similar number of people from 5 other European organisations for a weekend of debate and discussion that heard reports and debated, amended & agreed six motions. Alongside this was lots of informal discussion over food and drink, often as important a part of any meet up as the formal business.

For me this conference was part of a chain of formal and informal meetings going back to the 1994 Ruesta conference in Spain.  This conference never formally amounted to anything more than the declaration that was issued at the end of it but it was the loose basis of much of WSM international work over the period since. I was at a small gathering in Prague on the eve of the 2000 World Bank riot that brought together some of the groups who were at Ruesta with the Czech anarchist group ORA-Solidarita and a couple of new organisations.  A few years earlier I'd met some other members of Alternative Libertaire at the Zapatista Intergalatic encounter in Chiapas. So apart from anything else Paris was going to represent a chance to catch up on people I'd last seen a decade or further back.

In April 2001 the now defunct International Libertarian Solidarity ILS-SIL emerged from a gathering in Madrid that issued the Declaration of the International Libertarian Meeting signed by Al Abdil (Lebanon), AL (France), CGT (Spain), CIP de Oaxaca "Ricardo Flores Magon" (Mexico), CNT (France), FAG (Brazil), FAU (Uruguay), Marmitag (Greece), No Pasaran (France), ORA-S (Czech Republic), OSL (Argentina), OSL (Switzerland), SAC (Sweden). This had a relationship to Ruesta in that 8 of these organisations had members at Ruesta. I wrote an article on the conference but the WSM had been unable to send anyone to it. In 2002 WSM did decide to join SIL and I was able to attend the meeting that took place during the Seville EU Summit protests in June 2002.

The origins of SIL came at least in part out of the Ruesta conference because SIL brought together some of the anarchist orientated unions outside of the IWA who had also been at Ruesta with a number of the 'platformist' political groups. However the contradictions between bringing together mass organisations together with specific political organisations were always going to present problems and by the Seville meeting a divergence in purpose had already become visible, as far as I know Seville was the last formal meeting within the SIL. In retrospect SIL's main concrete work was to help in funding anarchist projects in South America, its broad nature made it difficult to sustain and develop once this initial work was completed.

Over the same period there had been growing online co-operation involving a number of comrades who spoke English . This had started in a general way with the launch of the Organise mailing list around 1995 and involvement in the a-infos publishing project. After a couple of years WSM conference agreed my proposal to draw up a joint political statement with the South African WSF. This statement was later used as the basis of unity for the now defunct Anarchist Platform email list which was translated in 15 languages and saw over 300 hundred people around the world sign up to.

In 2004 informal discussions started between a few of us from that list who met up in Dublin about a new international initiative to be based around a multi-lingual magazine. These continued for some months but it became clear that what had seemed like a simple proposal on paper would be very difficult to implement. So we shifted instead to the idea of launching a website. The idea became more defined and on Mayday 2005 Anarkismo.net went live, initially as an individual initiative of a number of members of platformist groups while we proved to our organisations that this could be worthwhile. A modified version of the old WSM/WSF statement became the Anarkismo Editorial statement.

Anarkismo.net rapidly showed its value so that within a year we were able to shift it from an individual initiative to a collective project of the growing number of organisations who were signed up to the statement. This involved the creation of a delegate based editorial collective to carry out the day to day work and decision making on the site. Today some 31 organisations are signed up, a listing of them can be found on the Anarkismo wikipedia page.

Two years back in an echo to the Anarkismo formation process a number of individuals in Anarkismo groups took the initiative of launching the Anarchist Black Cat web forums as a space for constructive ongoing discussion. These forums remain for now as an individual initiative, but one that uses the Anarkismo.net editorial statement as a common definition of political purpose. They may at some point formally link into the Anarkismo project as a whole although given the nature of forum discussions it may also be useful to have it remain as a loosely linked but independent project.

The idea of some sort of formal real world meet up of Anarkismo groups has been doing the rounds for two to three years. Initially the idea was of a single international conference but it soon became clear that this was too big a project for any group to step up to take on the logistics of organising. Talk turned to holding regional conferences and Alternative Libertaire in France volunteered to take on organising one last year. To an extent it could be argued that North America has already held two, the Class Struggle Anarchist Conferences of the last two years (in New York and then Detroit) have been comprised of the various organisations in North America signed up to Anarkismo.net plus the Workers Solidarity Alliance. Although the WSA has not signed up as an organisation to the statement is comprised almost completely of people who are also members of anarkismo organisations or who have signed up the statement as individuals.

The development of the Anarkismo project has followed a modest and often informal trajectory. The world is full of leftists internationals with lots of initials and declarations but no real international practice. From the start we have been clear that we don't want to repeat this mistake, that the declaration of an international would first require the existence of at least several sizable national organisations, each with the resources in terms of finance, time and translations skills to make the minimum requirements of a real international. This point of view is not always popular, indeed young organisations in particular are often keen to try and leapfrog that process either by signing up to one of the pretend internationals or trying to declare a new one. But I think the history I offer above gives some sort of clues as the difficulty of turning even loose paper declarations into any sort of ongoing reality.

In terms of the debate at Paris the idea of how fast we should move was probably the most central. All the organisations have broadly similar political positions and practice, we found very little to disagree with on those terms. But there were clearly at least three ideas of how quickly we should attempt to move with the opinion argued by the WSM being perhaps the slowest and most conservative of the options. I had been worried in advance of the conference that this would result in an almightily row - indeed there had already been some semi heated online exchanges but in fact the debate was very constructive with a lot of hard work going into formulating a set of amendments on each motion so that it could become acceptable to all. This was particularly important for us as although we carried an open mandate on all the motions it was very heavily weighed in some cases against the existing wording so being able to cast a vote for such motions demanded that a lot of changes be made to them.

In my opinion the process worked very well and the motions we emerged out of the conference with were modest and realistic ones that I think there is a reasonable chance of implementing over the allowed time scale. Some of those submitted were too ambitious in their vision and my experience of conferences is that such declarations when passed never actually get implemented, they just quietly vanish. But collectively we worked through the motions and I think came away with something that will be implemented.  Unfortunately apart from the two texts already shared ( European Union and on Migrations and Migrations into Europe) the decision of the conference was that the wording of the other motions would remain internal to the organisations involved in Anarkismo, so I won't be able to share the details here.

The WSM has a traditionally very open approach to this question, virtually every written decision we have ever made has been published online (well at least since around 1994 which is the year our sustained online presence started). But this isn't so common with other organisations. I think part of the reason is that secret police surveillance tends to be so deliberately obvious in Ireland that you reckon trying to hide such low grade information does more harm than good. Publication also tends to kill off some of the otherwise inevitable leftist rumor mongering.  I'm curious to see what form that takes as word of the Paris meeting circulates.

The Paris Anarkismo conference highlighted another difficulty of international work. Political culture, history and experience varies radically from country to country. This goes right down to decision making mechanisms. Most anglo countries which have a single trade union experience also have a similar, procedure bound decision making process. These is an expected and understood culture whereby motions are submitted, amendments are taken and votes are carried. This isn't true everywhere, elsewhere things are often less formal with a more flowing discussion and the decisions being made arising from the interpretation of whoever is running the meeting. In some cases this can become a problem as it tends towards a process driven by strong personalities but in other cases it can be more constructive.

One of the conflicts we had ahead of the conference was whether or not amendments would be accepted on the day. I'd argued against this as it tends to make meetings three times longer and more cantankerous then they need be (we excluded amendments from the floor from WSM conferences a few years back for this reason). But once we were there it was obvious that in order to get the motions into a shape agreeable by all we'd have to accept such amendments. I have to admit my advance worries were totally wrong, although there was confusion at times about just what was being proposed the actual process was a lot less painful then expected despite the need for breaks and clarifications.  I suspect this is a function of the number of people involved in the process and the level of political agreement they already share.  As the first number was low and the second high it was possible for us to talk through the differences to find and formulate acceptable compromise positions that still contained some real bite.

Paris wasn't all work. On our arrival we were treated to a fine meal of fresh oysters, chorizo, salami and cheeses (it was just as well none of us were vegans!) by the people putting us up as well as wine considerably more drinkable than the basic stuff available in Dublin for three times the price. Conference lunch consisted of lots of baguette with cheese, pate, roulette and perhaps as concession to the couple of vegetarians present humus. With of course more wine. Our British comrades were somewhat shocked by this drinking in the course of a conference but again the cultural difference is that those from mainland Europe generally are able to stop drinking after a single glass whereas in Ireland and Britain we are liable to not stop until we've drank every bottle (and then every bar dry). In the evening a gang of us went off to what turned out to be a really good Thai restaurant with the added amusement that because we arrived early and took up half the tables we got to finish our food with an audience of the Parisian petit bourgeoise waiting patently to take our places.

Then it was off to a warehouse / squat party which had been the end point of a demonstration during the day for migrant 'sans papiers' workers who were many months into a strike and some 40 occupations against unsafe working conditions and for regularization. The BTW is the struggle referred to in the Migrants & Migrations document agreed at the conference, specifically the section that reads "For example, the strikes by illegal migrants in France (Spring 2008, Autumn-Winter 2009) would not have showed up if a couple of teams within national unions (CGT, SUD, CNT) and associations did not support them. This is why revolutionary activists have a role to play in the birth of such struggles. As anarchist-communists and internationalists, we support such struggles. They are an opportunity to fight against capitalism, racism and nationalism at the same time."

Paying into the social one of the women on the table recognised me, and after a moments puzzlement I recognised her as one of the comrades from the World Bank riots in Prague back in 2000. Over the course of the weekend I was to meet three of the seven French comrades I'd been with in Prague, it was good to meet again after so many years. I think I'd last seen them in Prague before we were scattered early in the afternoon when a water cannon and ranks of riot police came charging down the hill and drove us back over the train tracks.  We caught up for a while but the French pop music and lousy beer proved a little bit too much for my Irish comrades so after a while we headed off in search of a bar. The one we had visited before our meal turned out to be now packed to the rafters so we headed to the suspiciously empty looking place across the lane. This turned out to be fine (but out of fashion) and in the course of the night we discovered it had been a resistance hang out during World War 2 and one night had been raided and some people taken outside and shot on the street in front of the building.  Paris is one of those cities with a story of war and revolution on every corner.

That turned out to be a very late night so our heads were a little fuzzy for the last day of the conference for which the longest and most complex motions had been saved. Still once we'd had a feed of black coffee and fresh croissants we managed to work through these productively. Towards the end of the day I got landed with drafting the brief public statement that was released (perhaps with a clearer head it would have ran to several pages) and a few of us headed off to a bar on the banks of the Seine for some final drinks before we returned to our hosts for another excellent meal (although Julian found his a little spicy).

On Monday morning around a dozen of us met up at Pere Lachase cemetery to try and local Nestor Makhno's memorial. Makhno could in some ways be considered the founder of our tendency along with a group of comrades, mostly Russian exiles that lived, met and published in Paris in the late 1920's. Their best known document was the Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists (Draft) published in 1926. Makhno died in 1934 and was cremated. The crematorium is surrounded by a two story covered walkway containing the ashes of those cremated behind small plaques identifying them. Makhno is around position 6500 on the second level, just to the right of the access stairway to that floor on the right hand side. Our small gathering of comrades from five countries located the last resting place of one of the greatest but perhaps least remembered revolutionaries of the 20th centuary.

Afterwards we headed to Oscar Wilde's memorial which is nearby. Wilde was at the least sympatheic to libertarian socialism, his essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism being the clearest demonstration of his viewpoint. From here we went in search of the memorial to the Paris Communards which is installed in the wall near one corner of the graveyard. According to legend communards were executed by firing squad against this wall after the commune had been crushed. Pere Lachase was certainly one of the last locations of organised resistance. The memorials to those killed in the Nazi concentration camps are in the same area as are the graves of French communist party leaders and other notable figures of the left.  Our last political act in Paris was to try and visit the HQ of the CNT 'Vignoles' which is on Rue Vignoles around the side of Pere Lachase but there was nobody there so all we saw was the exterior of the buildings.

All in all the conference turned out to be considerably more successful then I had expected. I think we set ourselves an ambitious but realistic target of work to be achieved for the next conference and it certainly did a lot to build inter organisational relationships. Some of the work that was laid out is already underway, I spent the early part of last week setting up new private forums on Anarchist Black Cat as well as writing a long and detailed internal report for the WSM on the conference with the two other members who had attended. It will be a considerable challenge to build on these beginnings both on the European and the global level but this is an absolutely necessary task if we are to fight capital on the global level. Anarkismo.net is a very modest start, but it is something that has grown from an idea in a couple of heads to a significant network in the space of only five years. I'd hope in the next period we will see considerable growth of the organisations involved, the number of organisations involved and the geographic spread of those organisations. 

That reader is a task for you as well as me, check out the Anarkismo wikipedia page to find if there is an organisation already in existence where you are and if there is join it.  If not then look for anarchists around you with similar views and found one, we will help where possible. WSM members have been involved at some level of the foundation of around a dozen organisations around the world over the last few years, both ourselves and our 30 odd Anarkismo sister organisations would be delighted to help other groups of comrades get organisations off the ground.

  


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