This is sort of biographical, sort of historical, sort of personal reflections on why after over 30 years of activism and the many compromises of live, I still see myself as an anarchist.
Anarchism can be a phenomenally idealistic and gentle ideology. Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid, the pacifist writings of Tolstoy and the lived out example of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin help us come to an understanding of anarchism not as chaos or autonomous individualism but as an approach to life with the ultimate value of society is based on ensuring that everyone is a valued, equal and worthy contributor to the wellbeing of all.
And there is also a pessimistic aspect to anarchism, something that perhaps is shared with the Christian concept of original sin. One can’t trust individuals to have power over another. There is something in being in a position of power that is inherently destructive of the person with power and those over whom the power is exercised.
I have been a part of the broader anarchist world, with my activism ebbing and flowing, since the time of the Vietnam War. I was first attracted to anarchism because of the creative energy of the Yippies and the practical experiments that were being attempted in egalitarian communities and alternative workplace models. And while I have worked, and continue to work, with many people involved in the traditional left, too often I found the organisations within which they played a dominant role conservative and/or willing to provide justifications and apologetics for wars, violence and oppression perpetrated by those nations and parties that claimed to be progressive. I felt that it was at least as important to live out the aims of a revolutionary movement as much as possible in the current moment—true propaganda by deed—as to strive for long term political transformation. There was something destructive and self-defeating in claiming that some wars were wrong rather than wars being wrong; that independent trade unions were fine here but not in some other countries; that sexism and homophobia are wrong here but justifiable among some movement allies.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s I found homes within two broad anarchist movements—anarcho-communism/anarcho-syndicalism and Christian anarcho-pacifism. I was a part of the Anarchist Communist Federation and worked on producing The North American Anarchist/Strike! This brought me into contact with a number of people who worked hard to provide practical assistance to trade union struggles around the world, from Poland to Chile to Cuba to China to South Africa to Canada, which were linked to broader struggles for political and social justice, anti-war and opposition to nuclear power. I had the opportunity to meet with people who had fought with the anarchists in Spain during the civil war who had come to the conclusion that “the enemy of my enemy is often my enemy”. I met people that had worked with Emma Goldman and were able to share stories about the betrayal of Russian labour activists, anarchists and others by their erstwhile allies centred about the Bolsheviks. I joined, for the 1st time, the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union (I rejoined in the 1990s), wanting to be linked the movement of Big Bill Hayward and Mother Jones.
I also had the opportunity to meet people from, and briefly visit, the New York Catholic Worker community, which began a decade’s long admiration for one of the most successful practical experiments in anarchist organisation. Being both rooted in faith and seeking to live out a life where all mattered, The Catholic Worker folk provided a different approach to anarchism, which complemented what I knew and experienced within the anarcho-communist movement.
By the early 1980s I was active in decentralised non-violent peace efforts that if not specifically anarchist in name were certainly inspired by the same desires. The Against Cruise Testing Coalition not only challenged the testing of air-launched cruise missiles in Canada but was actively involved in solidarity with independent peace movements in Eastern Europe who had spoken out against Eastern Bloc militarism and nuclear weapons. The Alliance for Non-Violent Action and the Toronto based Cruise Missile Conversion Project looked at ways of linking non-violence to specific socially transforming efforts—converting Litton Industries from military to peaceful production being the best known initiative coming out of a movement that sought to work by consensus, attempted to find common ground with opponents and explored effective non-violence in a sustained campaigned.
I made friends and connections with others in the broader anarchist movement in the 70s and 80s, including some of those who produced the prison anarchist journal Bulldozer and the BC based Open Road and many of those connected to Dragonfly, to Pagans for Peace, to the Anarchist Party of Canada (Groucho Marxist), to various anarchist collective workplaces, punk bands, poets and those that formed a part of Direct Action.
I was fortunate enough in both the 80s and 90s to take part in the Anarchist Survival Gatherings that were held in Toronto. At both I co-facilitated workshops in anarchism and spirituality; at the second I also took part in a workshop on anarchism and the IWW.
In the 1990s I found the work of Food Not Bombs and similar direct action/direct compassion inspiring. Often defying police and municipal officials, FNB people
provided a practical and visible alternative to the misuse of common resources. People don’t need bombs, we need food and shelter and community.
My writing was, and continues to be, strongly influenced by my experiences in the anarchist movement. My favourite publication credit remains Visions of Poesy: Some Anarchist Poets of the 20th Century (Freedom Press).
In recent times I have supported efforts to break down national barriers, such as No One Is Illegal, ongoing efforts to challenge economic injustice and peace tax initiatives. I am far less likely to be on the barricades or in a jail cell, taking part in a poetry reading to raise money for a cause or even going to listen to a speaker, but I still support in what ways I can efforts to create a world where everyone is valued, none are without the resources to live in dignity, a world where there is no violence and no hierarchy—the shalom kingdom for Christians or the utopian federated autonomous anarchist community.
This view has been strengthened over the years by working with those who are motivated by compassion and not power to address the problems in the world and by trying to find a way of making sense of the different ways of dealing with power within movements for social change. It was people in the anarchist movement who drew my attention to the oddities of supporting a strike in Canada but not in Poland, of criticising the U.S. invasion of Vietnam but not the U.S.S.R. invasion of Czechoslovakia, of opposing Chernobyl but not Darlington. It was people in the anarchist movement who looked at ways of ensuring people could participate in movement decision making, from providing transit tokens to potlucks to childcare collectives. Anarchists at survival gatherings didn’t think it odd that I support calls for a general strike and find a real connection to creation in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Within the broader anarchist movement both my idealist and cynical self find a home.