A division exists within the leaderless communities at the heart of the Occupy protests. I would describe this as a split between Social Democratic Anarchists and Communist Anarchists. I use these two terms provocatively, knowing that most of those I refer to would not describe themselves as either. Neither the terms Social Democrat or Communist are especially popular in the U.S., and the latter is often associated with small left-wing sects that those I describe as Communist Anarchists have a low opinion of. It also lately seems that the term “anarchist” is becoming unfashionable again. The terms are meant to indicate both continuity and rupture with the historical left. Since 1917, Social Democracy and Communism referred to two different paths of change. Social Democrats believed in reforming capitalism, so that its benefits would be shared more equitably. Communists believed in overthrowing capitalism. Both created disciplined, bureaucratic organizations to achieve their goals. Both believed attaining state power was crucial, either through elections — usually the path of Social Democrats — or armed struggle — more associated with Communists. Although they often vituperatively denounced each other, they could sometimes work together, as was the case in the 1930s in the U.S., when New Deal reformers, who closely resembled Social Democrats, were strengthened by the organizing efforts of Communists.
Today, we see similar splits, in the U.S. and all over the world, in the context of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and related movements. Some — undoubtedly the majority of participants in the U.S. — wish to reform capitalism. Others would like to destroy capitalism. However, in two crucial respects the participants in the movement–reformers and revolutionaries alike — differ from the old left. They all eschew bureaucratic forms of organization in favor of leaderless modes of organizing. And they all believe that building power from below is more important than strategizing about how to attain and exercise state power. That is why I describe them as “anarchists”, even if they might not adopt that label themselves. Over the next five to ten years, some of these movements may develop electoral wings, but it is difficult to imagine them attaching to these wings the same lofty hopes and dreams that characterized the old left.
So how do these divisions play out in the current movement? Social Democratic Anarchists are associated with the General Assemblies, including a strong belief that assembly decisions are binding, endorsing practices like “consensus decision-making” and “non-violence”, and shouting slogans such as “oppose corporate greed”,”we are the 99%” and “the police are part of the 99%”. In practice, they have adopted anarchist tactics, such as leaderless assemblies and direct action (i.e. occupying parks) to advance a reformist agenda including re-regulation of the banks and jobs programs. Even as there is uneasiness about signing on to a single list of demands, and no real clue as to how such a leaderless, decentralized movement might endorse such a list, it seems apparent that most demands would be drawn from the left-liberal playbook. I should note that without a large movement out in the street pressuring the administration from the left, it is unlikely if not inconceivable that such reforms will be implemented in the U.S. It is a paradoxical movement, attempting to create a fairly disciplined force without leaders, but largely pursuing state oriented policies. Right wing columnist Charles Krauthammer was not far off when he described OWS, which is dominated by Social Democratic Anarchists, as “big government anarchists”.
The Communist Anarchists are much less visible, and many are ambivalent about OWS. Some catchphrases associated with them include “autonomous action”, “diversity of tactics”, “anti-capitalism”, and “the police are the tools of the ruling class.” “Autonomous action” and “diversity of tactics” refer to principles that undermine the authority of the General Assembly and its frequent invocation of non-violence and even unease with violating laws. Even though OWS has successfully defied the mayor of New York City and remains in the park,the General Assembly continues to use the “human microphone”, which makes discussion slow and painful. Occupied Oakland, where Communist Anarchists are stronger, just ignores the rules against amplified sound. Rather than advocating a set of reformist laws, Communist Anarchists try to dissolve the system and socialize the wealth from the bottom up, through such actions as squatting abandoned buildings and ignoring copyright laws. Nevertheless, they are not exactly dogmatically anti-state, inasmuch as they fight to maintain institutions like libraries, and demand free services including higher education and mass transit.
Perhaps predictably, there is not much love lost between Social Democratic Anarchists and Communist Anarchists. The former have been known to tell journalists that they regard the Communist Anarchists as paid provocateurs. The Social Democratic Anarchists have shouted down those advocating no cooperation with the police at general assemblies. The Communist Anarchists often heap contempt on the phrase “We are the 99%”, which they see as obscuring class and racial differences except for those between the 1% and the 99%, and implicitly prioritizing the needs of the falling middle class over the more genuinely precarious at the bottom. They sometimes intimate that the social democratic anarchists are becoming, if they are not already, tools of the reformist ruling class which seeks to dampen, rather than spur, rebellion.
Yet, and this is not so apparent to either side, they have in some ways productively strengthened each other. Although it is rarely stated, a major inspiration for Occupy Wall Street was the Occupy Berkeley movement of 2009, where Communist Anarchists played a prominent role. It is hard to see how the occupy practice could have gone national without being toned down, as the Social Democrat Anarchists proceeded to do with Occupy Wall Street, promoted by the magazine Adbusters. But notwithstanding the seemingly marginal role that Communist Anarchists play in OWS, they have in fact been crucial to the movement’s growth. The unruly marches that produced over-responses from the police, and, as a result, massive publicity and sympathy for the movement, were unruly largely because anarchist communists ignored prescriptions to stay within legal boundaries, i.e. remain on the sidewalk. The swelling numbers attracted to the OWS are largely drawn to the Social Democrat Anarchists, but they’ve also increased the numbers of Communist Anarchists.
And this screw will probably turn yet again in the near future. OWS is about to run into something of a brick wall. No reform measures are likely in the near future in the U.S. The next election cycle will more likely weaken the prospects for reforms (with Republican gains in congress and, possibly, a Republican president) than strengthen them. It is not clear, to say the least, that the Social Democrat Anarchists have any strategy in mind besides calling for more demonstrations. This will start to wear down their supporters.
But in other countries, where this dynamic has already advanced a little further, the Communist Anarchists do have a response. The strategy devolves action away from the cumbersome General Assembly to neighborhood assemblies which take direct action against foreclosures, or hospital closings, or perhaps support striking workers. These “autonomous actions” may prove attractive to those tired of ineffectual demonstrations. We may see something like this in some cities in the U.S.
At one end, efforts to include more and more people in movements can collapse into “everyone ultimately shares the same values” platitudes. At the other, radicalism can plow into the “fight the people”, misanthropic cul-de-sac. Between those, there is some room to simultaneously stake one’s position about the best strategies and tactics for the moment, while recognizing that those who come to different conclusions may be allies, rather than police provocateurs or Trojan horses for the ruling class.
Ultimately, the fate of each wing of the movement will be decided in good part by the ability of the American state to reform itself. To the degree that reforms can be incorporated which dampen inequality and restore some sense of fairness for a substantial majority, the more radical, Communist Anarchist wing will find itself marginalized and isolated. Contrarily, if it is unable to do so, reformist Social Democratic Anarchists will likely find themselves losing the hearts and minds of activists to the more radical tendency. Just to get to this point, however, the movement will need to grow in both numbers and militancy.