“They were all wearing overalls”
How anarchist newspapers shaped the Spanish Revolution
For a brief time during the 1930s in Spain, equality was real — from work to greetings to clothes. One fancy hat-makers union was upset because everybody wanted to dress in common, in solidarity. The fascists were also upset, but in a different way.
Today, this history strikes a chord. I listened to an interview on KPFA featuring James Martel, a professor at SF State who studied anarchist newspaper archives in order to learn how they made equality real. He mentioned being on a panel where a liberal scholar said, “Equality isn’t possible, so we need to compromise and try reforms”—but then in his presentation, James described how equality already worked, more beautifully than we can imagine!
I loved the story. I also heard parallels between the way anarchists use local, independent newspapers to organize, and how the Tech Workers Coalition communicates online today. So, I invited James to have coffee, and to host a learning club with us. We posted a selection of readings, and on a Saturday afternoon a few weeks later, a few dozen people gathered to learn about the Spanish Revolution and find lessons for organizing in the tech industry. I finally typed up the transcript. I was absolutely stunned at how our conversation bridged the 1930s to today:
- Ensuring widespread accountability from below
- Identity politics as way of dividing and conquering the left
- Using newspapers and the Internet to organize effectively
- Tech companies giving workers free breakfast, for now
- Engineers kicking white nationalists off of the platforms they run
It’s a long read, but it’s worth the time if you want a real model of equality, work, and organizing—all in the face of fascism.
Listen to the audio above, or read the transcript below.
James: This talk is about anarchism and unions.
I am both an anarchist and the president of the local chapter of my union, the California Faculty Association, at SF State where I teach. This is a liberal union which is not an anarchist union in any sense. I am even on the bargaining team of my union for the whole state of California system! I find myself in this funny situation a lot where my politics don’t really match the stuff that I do.
The talk is about the period of time in Spain in the 20s and 30s, during the prelude to what is usually called the Spanish civil war — although I’ll try to get you not to call it that. Spain during this period had a giant union that was completely anarchist and very successful, and one of the key points about it which made it very unique, distinct from the socialist unions, not to mention the liberal unions, was that very often the rank and file would overcome the resistance of their own leadership to do whatever they wanted.
That was a very standard, frequent aspect of these unions, which is not a very common feature of most unions. Having said that, however, it does happen now and again even in more conventional unions. For example, right now in West Virginia, there’s this massive teachers strike, and from what I heard, the leadership did not want to have a strike, but the teachers said, “Screw this,” because they were so completely oppressed — so, it does happen.
The point is that these anarchist unions had this sort of built-in structure so that it was much easier for the members to act.
They sort of anticipated that leadership would be co-opted by capitalists and so on, and so they frequently overrode — but as I’ll show, it didn’t work quite as well in practice as in theory. It wasn’t a perfect anarchist union by any means.
The union I’m going to talk about is called the CNT. In English that stands for the National Confederation of Labor. It actually still exists. It was a giant union at the time; it had about a million members. It was very, very strong. Over time, it aligned with this other group called the FAI, the Federation of Iberian Anarchist, which consisted of a number of affinity groups that existed to make sure the CNT stayed anarchist.
At this time, the mid-1930s, Spain experienced this incredible revolution where anarchists took over large portions of the country, and as a response, Franco, the head of the military in North Africa at that time, actually invaded Spain with an army of imperialist troops based in Morocco. This started a war that lasted about three years, and unfortunately, the fascists won. They killed hundreds of thousands of people, and that was the end of the radical anarchist experiment. If you ever go to Spain, there’s a huge crucifix, Valle de los Caidos, in the mountains 60 miles north of Madrid, which Franco built using prisoner of war slave labor, mainly anarchists and socialists. It’s meant to celebrate his victory (and honor dead fascists). Leftists don’t like that place. I urge you not to go there!
Prior to this defeat, the fascists were opposed by the liberal-leaning Republicans, as well as communists and socialists, in a confederation known as the popular front, to fight the fascists. Eventually, each of these groups turned on the anarchists.
But the Spanish revolution is an amazing moment in history when anarchists largely ran the show.
It is one of the only moments of its kind. To tell this story, we need to make the distinction between anarchism and what I like to call “archism” — something we never talk about because it’s so prevalent.
“Archism” is the opposite of anarchism. Archism is this world that we live in; it is the doctrine of ruling and hierarchy. And the main archist principle I want to talk about is representation as a political — and archist — object. Anarchism is not about representation. Archism is. Archism takes a million forms — fascist, monarchist, blah blah, I would get in trouble for saying communism, but yes, even communism is part of archism, at least in its initial forms. And of course archism includes liberal capitalist systems like what we have in the United States. In all of those systems, you have representation instead of direct political action. Even Hitler said, “I represent the German people better than any parliament” — he always claimed to speak on behalf of the people. The idea is that when you have a sub-group standing in for another group, whether it’s ten or 100 or 1,000 people, those people only run things for themselves, and the rest of us are completely disenfranchised.
But anarchism has no representation. You’re not supposed to vote for people — everyone is supposed to be involved politically, as themselves. You benefit and suffer from your own decisions. I like using the word “archism” a lot because we never say it — by naming one system, it makes it so that we don’t have to simply accept it. For example, we have homeopathic medicine, and “regular” medicine — which actually has a name, allopathic medicine. But not many people know that. And when you hear that, it becomes obvious that Oh, this isn’t just what medicine is, it’s one kind of medicine. I feel the same way about anarchism and archism.
The fact that the CNT was an anarchist union made it unique. To a large extent, it was a non-representative union. There wasn’t a lot of voting, there weren’t a lot of executive boards, there was very little structure like we’re used to in most contemporary unions. I want to look at a short history of the CNT, from 1911 when it was founded, to 1939 when it was largely killed off by Franco, even though it still exists today. I want to show how the context of the Spanish civil war was really not a fight between the Fascists and the Republicans as we tend to think.
This time was really a fight between a revolutionary movement and a counter-revolutionary movement.
When you think of it that way, the couplings change. It was everybody against the anarchists.
Let me talk a bit about the background to the CNT and how it started. The first thing to say is, it did not come out of a vacuum. This union emerged from a couple of generations of anarchist ferment in Spain, especially in Andalusia in the south, and Catalonia in the northeast, where Barcelona is, and also Aragon — ever since the 1880s, those three provinces had very powerful peasant movements — farmers, miners, all these people who were radicalized and organized.
So, by the time the CNT emerged, you had two crucial ingredients: first, you had radical politics among hundreds of thousands of committed anarchists — something you obviously have to have for an anarchist movement! — and, at some point it became clear to the various factions — and there are always factions, anarchists always fight with each other (you might have some experience with this!) — that they needed a big giant national organization to coordinate with each other , so they could work things out and do things in tandem. In 1910 they weren’t yet facing Franco, but there already many fascist and semi-fascist governments in Spain at any given time; it was awful.
So, in addition to this giant cadre, they had this second ingredient: an organizational structure, the CNT itself, which is the model for a lot of leftist organizing to this day. For example, the spokescouncil, the general assembly, all that you saw in Occupy Wall Street — that all comes from the CNT and the way they organized themselves. The model’s been adapted a little bit, but it’s basically direct from them. Out of a million members of the CNT, it’s estimated that about a third of them — 330,000 — were full-on, hard-core anarchists. And back then, it was a much smaller country! If we had 330,000 anarchists in this country today, it would be awesome! I’m not sure we have that many, though.
It was these two things together that mattered. If you had 330,000 anarchists but no way for them to talk to each other — no forum for them to be together politically, it would never have amounted to anything (at least not on a national level).
With their organizational structure, the anarchists had the ability to come alive together.
I want to mention that in our own time, we have a lot of the ingredients — a lot of union radicalism, a lot of anarchists, but we don’t have the same exact structure, which is something I’ll talk about a bit later.
In 1910, when the CNT was founded, the other large union was called the UGT, which in English was the Workers’ General Union. This was a socialist union. The UGT was a much more traditional union. It was run top-down, everyone voted — the rank and file would vote, go back to their jobs, and be forgotten. It much more accommodating with capitalism, always working with the liberals, and so on. But the CNT came out of a different movement, connected to the Catalan trade union, which was called Solidaridad Obrera — in English, Workers Solidarity — and it directly challenged the way the UGT worked. It consciously sought to create a different model. And over time, the two unions uneasily co-existed. At one point they even both backed a general strike, but generally the different political structures made it impossible for them to get along. By 1927, there was a fear that the CNT was going to lose its anarchist way. The leadership of the CNT talked with the UGT leaders and said in effect, you get to do whatever you want all of the time and nobody gives you any grief? That’s great! It was so tempting for these leaders to drift away from anarchism. And so the FAI was created as a way to make sure the CNT stayed true to its anarchist roots. (Sometimes you see the term CNT-FAI being used, but to be clear, the CNT was the union and the FAI was the anarchist conscience within it).
In 1911, after the CNT was founded, it was declared illegal by the Spanish state. It wasn’t declared legal again until 1936, when it lasted openly for 3 years until 1939, when the fascists came and destroyed it. But being illegal was the best thing that could have happened to the CNT, because being called illegal by the state — which the anarchists didn’t recognize anyway — was a great recruiting tool! It worked perversely.
What did the union look like? How was the CNT different than other unions? I don’t know about your experience in modern unions, but it’s like night and day. For one thing, all critical decisions had to happen at the general and local assembly level. No decisions were made in any smoky dark rooms, it all had to happen with as many people as possible. And what was even more incredible is that there was no voting. Everything had to be done by consensus. That was very deliberate. The anarchists believed that voting preserves the representational groupings that are the heart of archism.
Consensus — as complicated, difficult, and annoying as it is — is a way to genuinely work through a political process, together.
To the extent that they recognized it’s not always possible to have one million people from all over the country come together, there were assemblies with a kind of representational principle, but true to the spokes councils that we have today, they weren’t allowed to make any decisions. They had to continually check back with the local assemblies. In practice, there was very little corruption, very little tendency to override the decisions that were grounded in local assemblies.
Unfortunately, though, there was a way that archism snuck in — through standing committees, which existed in every province and at the national level as well. The idea with these committees was that they were administrative in a logistical, operational sense only. People would decide what to do, and they’d say, OK, here’s how we’ll do it. But, of course, in practice they took on a sort of life of their own. The standing committees got annoyed when general assemblies demanded what they felt was too much of them, and that’s exactly why the FAI was created — to countermand them with a sort of different standing committee, devoted to making sure the committees didn’t have any power, that they only did what they were told.
Another failing of this model was, consensus takes a really long time! I don’t know how much experience you have with it, but it can be exhausting, there can be troublemakers. But there was a very strong reason for consensus. If we were all a committee and we argued about something until we come to consensus, we would have really worked something out! We would have been forced to listen, to talk to each other. But if we voted, the minority gets left out — over and over again, and then factions get entrenched. That’s why the CNT chose consensus. They never paid any of their officials, not one penny. They didn’t want to have a sort of professional class. They also insisted on having different sectors of different unions come together, so that no group that might be held in higher esteem — like the lawyers guild — got power over others.
But in practice, because of the huge structure of the union, there was a kind of voting after all. There were thus both mechanisms; the anarchist and archist methodologies were in constant tension throughout the history of the CNT.
One thing in particular really held up the anarchist cause: the anarchist newspapers.
The newspapers were a mouthpiece to promote anarchism, and to call out archist tendencies. And they were run by smaller affinity groups. For example, there was one by the FAI with a lot of very productive social shaming of bad behavior.
I want to go through three cases that show what the CNT was really about, what were its successes and its failures.
The first came in the mid-1930s. Murray Bookchin, one of the great anarchist scholars, has a whole chapter about this — he loves describing how they collectivized vast areas of land, farms, in a very anarchist way. It wasn’t done in a socialist way, where everyone lives on one giant tract together. Some stuff was collective, other stuff wasn’t. You stayed in your house, but you combined forces where it was helpful. It was more of what’s typically called mutual aid.
In October of 1936, this movement came to a head in the province of Aragon. They created a regional defense council based on the local anarchist assemblies. This political structure was therefore made to match the economic and social structure. And the CNT regional committee was dead-set against this. Why? Because the national, liberal government opposed this. They wanted to run the whole country, and they didn’t want anyone to break off. It’s very much like what we have in Syria today. Rojava is the Kurdish region that’s run somewhat by anarchist principles — don’t get too excited; it definitely has its problems. The head of the effort to liberate Kurdistan, Abdullah Ocalan, has long been in a Turkish jail. While there, he read Murray Bookchin’s writings about what happened in Spain, and he changed the entire movement from a top-down, Marxist structure to this kind of anarchist structure. It was unbelievable. And now this region in Syria is practicing a lot of these policies which is causing a lot of consternation not only for the Syrian regime but for many others who would like to otherwise dominate Rojava. That’s Murray Bookchin!
Going back to the time of anarchist Spain, when confronted with this possibility of a semi independent political movement, the liberal government did not want to lose control, and the CNT regional leadership, which was aligned with them, didn’t want to cause trouble. But general assemblies were called, and the regional defense councils were set up anyway. The leadership couldn’t stop them — they didn’t have any formal authority anyway! And so they were forced to go along with it, they said We love it! But they said that only after it happened. Before that they tried hard to stop it. The same thing happened in West Virginia, where the union leadership said they didn’t want a strike, but then there was a strike and now they’re all about it. A bit of tail wagging the dog.
Unfortunately, in August, 1937, the national government sent the army into Aragon, and forcibly dismantled everything in the regional council, and they violently stopped this anarchist self-government. And the CNT leadership just watched it happen. The union leadership compromised and didn’t do anything, and the rank and file weren’t in a position to do much, either. It was a good start with a bad ending.
Another story, which might be even more important, also took place in 1936, when these waves of collectivization happened. At the time that this revolution happened, the CNT leadership in national and regional councils was very wishy-washy. They didn’t want to explicitly call for a radical takeover of power. This is the kind of things that led to the regional council forming in Aragon. The leadership actually explicitly rejected an offer of power by the Catalonion regional government that was made to the CNT! They said, You can take over the whole region, because you de facto run the place, and the CNT leadership tried to say no, but again, people held assemblies, people were mobilized, and they did indeed take over two-thirds of Catalonia, huge chunks of it. So it wasn’t just a union anymore; it was a political organization. And that happened in other places, too. These groups never formally broke with Spain, but they ran the place, and that remained the case until the fascist victory in 1939. That was a happy story (until it wasn’t but the in this case came from external foes, rather than being self-imposed).
In 1937, a third story of conflict adds more nuance to this description. At that time the communists and socialists ganged up against the anarchists. It was one of the saddest things that happened during the whole revolutionary period. The CNT was backed into a corner. The national government sent soldiers to take over the telephone exchange building in Barcelona. Fortunately, although the CNT itself didn’t really do anything, the anarchists were mobilized and had weapons. They rose to the occasion and fought off the republican guards. All of these anarchist groups — the newspapers and the people running them — were screaming bloody murder. They said, This is it! We have to completely break with the national government, forget the popular front, we have to go it alone, and so on. And of course they were going to say that, because the CNT leadership was weak and dithering. But unbeknownst to everyone at the time, the CNT leadership made a side-deal with the national government to tell their troops in Barcelona to stand down, and what that did was to break this anarchist moment. The CNT overrode their membership in this case with a very bad effects.
In all of these three situations, it was the unique structure of the CNT that made these rebellions from below at all possible, and far more likely! In modern unions — including the one I’m in, unfortunately — there are so many barriers to the rank and file doing that. There’s no way to talk to each other. The organization itself is hostile to do doing something! Accordingly, there is no clear forum, no space for this kind of politics (until and unless groups start to make one and that is happening to some extent and in some places but so far nowhere near at the scale that it was in Spain during the 1930s).
One failure of the CNT is that they didn’t call assemblies often enough. If they did, leadership couldn’t have gotten away with all their shenanigans. Like archists will, they only called assemblies when they felt like it. The leadership actively tried to prevent them from being called too often. And you know what life it like — you don’t have 24 hours each day to go to meetings and yell at each other, you have jobs and whatever else. So the relative rarity of assemblies had the effect of dampening the anarchist ferment. But nevertheless, that structure existed, and it was very easy to act — if they did mobilize, it was all there.
In the third case, the speed with which the leadership made their side-deal with the government sort of got ahead of the anarchists. That’s a shortcoming. Real anarchism is slow, then fast. But if you can pull one over them before they get really organized, then it’s all over. And that third case was probably one of the last chances for the anarchists to come out on their own and stand as themselves. Just a year and a half later, the war was over. When Franco won, he’d killed 200,000 members of the CNT. That’s a lot. And hundreds of thousands of its members were jailed. They killed many, built that giant crucifix. The CNT was declared illegal and somehow survived till today, which took a lot of bravery. But it’s not what it once was. It exists, it still organizes general strikes, but it’s not what it was. Not by a long shot.
I want to shift gears and talk about our own times. And if you’ll allow me one very academic comment, I’ll then get to the rest of what I have to say. In my own academic work I study this wonderful German scholar named Walter Benjamin, who talks about the difference between political strikes and general strikes, the difference between archism and anarchism. The political strike is what we have today. It’s unions that use the violence of the state against the state, but it’s not radical. The reason is, you’re blackmailing the state with it’s own violence — you’re using the means of the state to counteract it. Through a lot of bargaining and hard work, unions are allowed to use a little bit of violence to force the state (or corporate entity) to concede this or that. I’m not talking about stabby violence, but uncomfortable pressure, force. Through this kind of action, modern day unions can scare or bully the state into bargaining. That’s not radical. On the contrary, such a move kind of seduces the working class into a de facto alliance with the state, sharing the same means and acting as archists as opposed to anarchists. And as you can see, it’s not working well at all. The right wing is on the verge of really crippling the public service unions through a Supreme Court decision called Janus [update: they did].
But the general strike is a completely different thing. The political strike demands a raise, better conditions, but it’s not radical. The general strike says, I refuse you, you don’t exist! I want a world where there is no state. And I’m keenly aware of the difference between a political strike and a general strike in my own life as a union chapter president. I’m very aware that my union, as much as I love it, is a liberal effort to work within the system; it is completely compromised, and not at all radical. I want to talk about that, to get us into discussion. In our union we have elections, we don’t use consensus, everything is done by voting; it’s impossible for the rank and file to talk to each other! I say, Can I talk to people? But it’s just not built that way. In our own chapter when we have membership meetings, hardly anybody comes, because nobody gives a damn.
To its credit, my union has been trying to turn itself from a transactional union, that merely addresses particular problems, into a political movement. It still bargains for a raise, for a better position in liberal capitalism. But without the two ingredients of the CNT, we can’t do much: you need the broad, horizontal mass of politically motivated membership, and you need the organizational structure that gives people access to each other.
Now, to be fair to the communists, Karl Marx himself had his own anarchist tendencies. He said that when people go to communist meetings, they do so for transactional reasons — for example, they want a raise, a better job. They’re liberal subjects. They’re beaten down. But, as they start to mobilize — and maybe you’ve had this experience yourselves — they start to transform. They start out motivated by bad liberal reasons, because that’s all there are in our world, but then…
they are transformed in the struggle of fighting for those things in a way that they never see coming.
So I don’t want to poo-poo liberal unions, because change needs to come from somewhere, but I do think we have a long road ahead of us. One thing we’re doing in my union, a tiny little baby step, is, we’re creating a departmental representative system, where each department can improve how they work together, to create smaller and more intimate affinity groups. It’s not anarchist, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Let me tell you about one terrible thing that’s happening to the labor movement, the Janus decision I referred to just now — which actually in, my heart, I secretly look forward to, because I believe it’s going to force the unions to radicalize. Remember when Antonin Scalia died? That was like the best thing that ever happened, because he was about to rule on this horrible case called Friedrichs, which was going to change the way unions get their dues. There was a Supreme Court case called Abood that came out about forty years ago that argued that even if you’re not part of a union, if you get a raise because of union, you have to pay dues. And the only way you can avoid that is, you go and say, I refuse to pay a dime. That gives you a three-tiered structure in public sector unions: members who want to join, fee-payers who don’t want to join but still pay the same amount, and opt-outs who go through the trouble of saying, I hate you. Friedrichs was set up by horrible people like the Koch brothers in order to destroy this setup, on the basis of free speech. Somehow, it violates your free speech to pay for something you’re not part of or don’t approve of (never mind that you always had the option to opt out and not pay anything). So Friedrichs would transform the way dues are collected, requiring people to opt-in. And that long deferred day is going to happen, with a new case called Janus v. AFSCME. With this case, thanks to the addition of Neil Gorsuch, who replaced Scalia and is even more right wing, all fee-payers are going to stop paying, and if a union goes below 50% membership, the groups you’re talking to don’t have to do collective bargaining anymore so this is an existential threat.
Of course this is terrible, and harmful, and evil, but I think it’s going to force the unions into a position where if they really do reject their rank and file and not talk to them, they’re going to lose it all. I’m not an accelerationist — I don’t believe it’s good to have things get worse — but I do think that if there’s no alternative, the only thing to do is for unions to turn to the rank and file and organize. And, there are some examples of this!
In many states, this Janus rule is already in effect — it’s called Right to Work. Nevada has it. In fact only 23 states aren’t Right to Work, including California. So Janus would turn all states into Right to Work states. But in Nevada, there are some really radical unions that are completely horizontal because they’re just pissed at how badly they are being treated — no collective bargaining, no fees. And that’s how you get back into rank and file membership embracing an anarchist model (after all, you better believe that the Spanish unions in the early 20th century faced a much more hostile working climate than what any of us face in the US today).
So, that’s my best hope right now. I don’t like saying I want to see things get worse, but I believe archism is seductive, pulling people into representational systems, and the unions have gotten very lazy — and they don’t bother organizing anymore. I don’t tend to say that to my fellow union members, but maybe we all think it in our hearts?
James: Now I thought we could get into small groups and talk about this — how we’re managed, and how we’re resisting that management, and what ways could this little spark of anarchism I’ve been talking about be brought into your work and life? What would it look like, what would it feel like, what would you do with it? And then we can come back together. How does that sound?
Danny: that sounds great. And before we get into small groups, does anyone have any burning questions for James? Ask anything to get more ideas out!
Q: You talk about a kind of political union that’s not radical but might be radicalized, but a lot of us here work in highly-skilled tech labor that’s not generally unionized. Is there a jump that skips that political step, that gives us real rights?
James: That’s a great question. My union is sort of like that. We’re a relatively privileged group at least as far as the tenure track faculty are concerned. For the lecturers, on the other hand, they’re not privileged at all. And almost all of the radical members of my union are lecturers, because they’re treated like crap. It’s not that different to think about yourselves in the tech world — you’re treated relatively well, so the urge to unionize isn’t overriding. But I think the amazing thing about having skills to work in tech is that when you do unionize, you’re actually much more powerful. The California nurses union, the CNA, is one of the most powerful in the state because when they go on strike… that’s it. So, nobody can touch them. That’s not really what you’re question was, but I’m saying that your union can be powerful in a political sense. And in a way I think to skip the political part, and go straight to the radical part would be great, because in many ways, the political part is bad. It improves your working conditions in the short run, but it minimizes you as a radical actor. If you come in as a radical union from the get-go, that would be a much more powerful and intense mode of operation. It would take a lot of organizing, because you’d have to skip a lot of steps — nobody in my union is an anarchist, and I’m barely getting them to the political level. I used language like, Oh it’s good, you get more money, more resources — but that’s a trap. If you can somehow skip that whole part, I think that’d be fantastic.
Q: Can you talk about these anarchist union’s relationship to technology in this time in Spain? Were they opposed to it? And, how do they use communication?
James: Yes. Murray Bookchin complains bitterly about how people think these unions were anti-technology, because a lot of them were peasants and miners. But it turns out there were super pro-technology. At the time, technology was different, but the anarchist newspaper was the cutting-edge — and that was not just a mouthpiece. It’s really exciting to read them in Catalan, if you can. I compare them to the communist and socialist journals, which were propaganda pieces. And so are the New York Times, and Fox News. But the anarchist newspapers don’t feel like propaganda, because they fight with each other! I know it doesn’t seem like technology because it’s so outdated, but it is — and it’s a space where people fight and work out their differences in the press! One thing I found really depressing in my archival research is that as you get towards the end of the war, when things were almost over, the anarchist newspapers start to sound more like the other ones. They get depressed and despair and start saying things that aren’t true — they start lying. The communist newspapers did that from the start! “We’re going to defeat the fascists, we’re going to get a workers paradise, it’s going to be awesome” — they never change that! The anarchist papers were different. They said, “This is scary, we’re getting killed, we don’t know what’s going to happen, things are uncertain.” But towards the end when failure was about to come, the anarchist papers start sounding like propagandists. It’s not the technology’s fault. I’m sure this is something you talk about all of the time — it’s not the technology’s fault, it’s neither good nor bad. It can be compromised by archism very easily, but it can also be used as a place to resist that! There’s nothing in the technology of newspapers that favors one side or the other. For you as people working in tech, I think it’s great to think about re-occupying that space in a radical way. And you know, the internet has been a fight between anarchism and archism its whole life! It’s the same thing — these newspapers, and especially these broadsheets, these simpler things that were printed and handed out, which were even better because they were from the local assemblies, and they just said whatever they wanted to! Those were the most honest. They were fantastic. The big ones like Tierra y Liberdad, they were kind of fancy and committee papers were much like that too, but the lower down, the more primitive the technology, the more honest and anarchist you got.
Q: I think it’s really interesting to hear about how anarchist ways of organizing, the different ways of taking a stand on things. Is there a difference in they way you end up taking that stance, a difference in the quality of change?
James: I think there is. One of the things I found really fascinating in my research is that the anarchists never insisted, the way the archists did, on making everything absolute and total. For example, in archist thinking, you couldn’t have partial control of an area — you had to have all of it. You couldn’t have episodic moments, you had to be constant. Anarchists were comfortable with a patchwork, both temporally and spatially, and the outcomes reflected that. They were OK not running the entirety of Spain. And even in the two stories I shared about the local councils, they didn’t need to have absolutely eclipse Spanish sovereignty. They didn’t bother, they didn’t care, they didn’t need it. Rojava is the same. That area is still within Syria, and they even have post offices run by the Syrian state. They’re cheek-and-jowl with the anarchist groups. The organizational structure really affects what they come up with, and has a different flavor to it. By the way, I recommend all of you read “Homage to Catalonia” by George Orwell, because he went to Barcelona in the middle of all of this, and he was so struck by the anarchism and how they were organizing. He was with the socialists, and so he was a socialist himself, but the whole book is about how the socialists betrayed the anarchists and how even though he was a socialist, he felt really bad — his heart was with the anarchists. He said that people on the street would call each other “tu” instead of the formal “usted,” how everyone wore overalls, he said it was “A queer and-” I forget the other word he used-
James: Yes! “A queer and moving experience.” Although I don’t think he meant ‘queer’ like we use the word today.
Q: What would be the response of the state or other when anarchism becomes powerful?
James: Unfortunately, I know what the response would be. It would be the same response you got in Spain. Nothing brings fascism out like incipient anarchism. I was just talking to my friend, and she’s a communist, and I don’t want to always make this distinction — I think we’re on the same side — but she told me this great thing. She’s organizing waitresses in her small part of New York State to create a kind of public forums so if waitresses get sexually harassed by their customers, so they have a kind of political response rather than legal responses. And as this anti-harassment actually became possible, people started to Freak Out. They brought all of this anger and hostility. She said that it’s like the working class is OK with the possibility of communism as long as it doesn’t actually happen — but once it starts to happen, it gets really freaky! You bring out weird reactions from the people you’re trying to organize and the others. Anarchism is a direct competition for power against archism. It’s an absolute, existential threat to the state. Whether it’s monarchic or liberal or fascism, who cares — the state is fine, it doesn’t care how it works out. But anarchism is a direct challenge to a monopoly, and you bring the full brunt of the state on you, you’d invite incredibly hostile and violent response. So you might start to second guess creating a radical union! I don’t know much in life to be certain, but if you manage to present a real, anarchist alternative, you will get the full violence — the full, fascist violence of the state, liberal or not.
Q: So, how will capitalism end?
James: I think all systems end. So eventually it will end on its own. It will end of its own … rotitude. For me the real enemy is, archism, not capitalism. They’re hand in hand. I think capitalism was ended, by certain communist movements. But do you want to live with those, would you like those alternatives? The reason I like anarchism the best is, it has a political structure that I actually like! Not only does it replace capitalism and the state, but — it’s actually not bad! It’s not just not that, it’s also this. That’s something I find really exciting!
Q: As someone who studies that revolutionary moment in Spain, and who currently lives in this moment, do you see particular things that might get us to a similar place? What do you think would be the conditions necessary — without accelerationism — to make something that interesting? What kind of empowerment can we do, so that we actually have that situation, we’re prepared?
James: I actually think that the union movement might be a place to make that happen. Because that’s what happened in Spain. That was the mechanism. It’s obvious, but you need a way for people to talk to each other. There’s this new fad called “deep mobilizing” — which is just old-fashioned mobilizing, because they don’t do it anymore — that hints at returning to the original union movement. The American union movement was very radical in its early days. It’s atrophied, but — it’s a great forum, and it already exists. The key is that as unions formulate themselves, they can’t just go back to business as usual. Because I think a top-down union is useless. Well, not useless — I like my union! — but it’s not radical. If you want a radical outcome, the union has to be radical. You barely got something from the CNT — you had a perfect setup and even so, it was tough. I guess you have to give up on perfect.
Q: What would be your response to Bookchin that the CNT was the last movement, the last chance?
James: Yea, his pessimism weighs heavy. And ironically, he’s inspired this whole anarchist movement anyway — the Kurds in Syria and in Turkey are great. But I think even Bookchin is on the fence, his heart doesn’t want to rule it out. What would be the point of saying, “This was all we’ll ever see, it’ll never happen again — sorryyy, you guys are stuck with capitalism forever.” But I think part of his pessimism is that he was so in love with that time, he can’t separate himself. It reminds me of the first time I taught at SF State, there were these lovely professors who were all Marxists from the 60s, and they said “Oh you guys missed the ’60s, they were the best, blah blah, it’s over” — and you know, a lot of radicalism has happened since then. To me, 2011 [and Occupy Wall Street] was in many ways just as radical as ’68. In fact, some of the older people admitted to me very unhappily that 2011 was just as awesome, even though 1968 was this one moment — in their mind — that could never happen again. So, I don’t think the system is over, and I don’t think we’ll never win, so I can’t share Bookchin’s pessimism. But I do think you don’t want to fall so in love with the old model that you can’t adapt and change with the times, you know? At the end of his writing he says, “Here’s what you have to do, you have to blah blah blah and blah” — and I don’t think that the future of radicalism is going to look exactly like the CNT. For example, you can learn from their mistakes. You can change and adapt. I think the best part of the CNT has been preserved, and that’s why we have spokescouncils and general assemblies and all that kind of stuff. We should look to history not as a beautiful golden age that was perfect and will never happen again, but as a warning.
Q: You talked about one key ingredient for revolution being, ways to talk to each other. And right now, we have the Internet — in theory, it should give us lots of easier ways to communicate, but that doesn’t always happen in practice. What do you mean by better ways to talk to each other?
James: Part of me is old-fashioned enough to think that some amount of face-to-face communication is required for trust and relationships. I don’t think that’s impossible on the Internet, but it should be supplemented with some amount of human interaction in-person. But whether it’s online or in-person, I think there has to be a deliberate structure where you come together for a purpose, on a regular basis, with some kinds of rules. And anarchism has this reputation for being chaotic and disorganized, but that’s not true at all. It’s extremely well-organized. I think that capitalism is chaos, an awful free-for-all. But anarchism has to be organized, to counteract such an incredible force. So if you just say Hey we’re going to get together to talk about anarchism, that’s not enough. That’s why the anarchist unions in Spain created this structure where talking translated directly into political action. Now we have all of the anarchist groups in Oakland that I love, that’s what I’m talking about. If that happened at a larger level, that’d be great. But it can’t just be a chat group.Talking has to be supplemented by some kind of organizational structure in order to be politically meaningful. It has to aim towards some goal and outcome. Otherwise, without that, camaraderie is not enough to sustain a permanent movement. I don’t want to downplay camaraderie on the other hand; the comradeship and the institutional structures the comrades build sustain each other — as the mechanisms of change work, more people join. You need both.
Q: In the history of the revolution they were taking over rural farms and factories, and they were successful, but when they got to cities, how did that go? What were the pros and cons?
James: In Barcelona, it worked really well! That’s maybe the ultimate example of a city with a lot of people that was largely a city controlled by anarchists. But that control isn’t the same as the kind exercised by liberals or fascists. The anarchists didn’t ‘control’ it in the sense of totally dominating it; they allowed non-control to happen, in a kind of controlled way if that makes sense. It was never 100%, and they didn’t need 100% — they were OK with 75% or whatever they had. And it was great! Everyone ate, and bathed, and did all the things they needed to happen to make ordinary life possible. The monetary economy really took a back-seat to a kind of shared bartering system and mutual aid — it all worked really well. I heard a wonderful quote about anarchism, maybe my favorite quote ever by Kathy Ferguson, roughly: “Everyone says that anarchism is a great idea in theory but terrible in practice. But actually the opposite is true. It’s a terrible theory, but it’s a fantastic practice.” And I think that’s exactly the case. I think the practice in Barcelona was magnificent. Trying to theorize it is sort of,… you know, perhaps besides the point. Whenever I try to teach anarchist texts to my students, they’re often bored out of their minds. All these cheesy ideals like, Let’s all be brothers and sisters. That’s no good. But the practice is fantastic, it really is. And it worked. I love the irony of when liberals say, “Oh if only we could all be politically equal, but since we can’t, blah blah blah” — but the truth is, you can! It actually already happened! It all worked out! And then they have to back off of that awful pretense of, “Oh, human nature being what it is, we have to blah blah” — that’s why the example of Barcelona is critical. It worked great! And yes, it did bring on this fascist reaction that brought on its destruction, so that’s a problem. But that’s not the anarchist’s fault, that isn’t a problem with anarchism per se.
Q: Did identity politics play a role in Barcelona?
James: Yes! One of the great innovations of the time was the rise of feminism. Spain was incredibly patriarchal at the time and was radically transformed in anarchist spaces. And this is something that has happened in Rojava too; the participation of women in various organizing structures there is at least 50%. So that was a huge innovation. In Spain at the time a lot of different ideas about sexuality also changed, and all of the ethnic groups, the Aragonese, Basque, Catalonians — that all fell aside, it was seen as completely irrelevant. And it’s funny to see this independence movement in Catalonia right now, because it’s very nationalist, not anarchist at all. I have some friends who are Catalonian radicals, and they distrust it even though they also don’t want to be part of Spain, because of its rampant archism and neoliberalism. One of the things the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s — you can see that even saying the word “Spanish” to describe all of them is problematic — were really good at was not being caught up in any of this. And many of the anarchist heroes at the time weren’t Spanish — they were German, French, even from the United States. There was a real sense of internationalism, and not in that liberal, fake way. They were from different countries so they didn’t pretend they were all the same, and they didn’t insist on all speaking one language or having one culture, but they didn’t feel bound by identity politics either. Identity politics can be a tool of archism too.
Q: Were they super conscious about it, or were they lucky?
James: Oh yes, they were super conscious. They had to work really hard. The first thing that Franco did when he took over was, he banned the Catalan language, he banned the Basque language, their culture, and everything. But the anarchists allowed everyone to speak their own language. It wasn’t a problem. They were very consciously trying to prevent being divided and conquered.
Q: I’m very interested in drawing on this for lessons for today, and I’m curious about what you think about the formation of unions in an industry like tech, where the discontentment is so stratified, and a lot of us work at companies that are trying so hard to treat us well, and people aren’t angry enough to want unions — they get free breakfast. So, what do you do with that? With people not being subdued into contentment?
James: I have the same problem in my union, trust me. So, I have to answers from two mindsets. In my liberal union mindset, I’m always for unionizing everything, because it can’t hurt — it can only help. What capitalism does is, it gives you all of the goodies, but then it takes them away. The free breakfast might get taken away when you get replaced by artificial intelligence. So it’s good in that liberal, transactional way to fight fire with fire and unionize. The anarchist mindset asks a bigger question: it’s not just what kind of work do you want to have, but what kind of political life do you want to have? Do you want to always have someone else making decisions for you? Do you want to be a passive observer of politics? And I believe that politics is one of the greatest things we can do! So cutting us off from that is cutting us off from what it means to be a human being. And that might sound a little hoighty-toity, but I think anarchism is the insistence that you have a say in and control your own life. And I think that at any stratified level, that would appeal to people. It might be that you don’t get to hold on to the privilege you had, but down the road, every worker today is an impoverished subject tomorrow. So it makes sense to see that coming, and become anarchist in advance. And then everyone can all have free breakfast!
Q: Do you have any insight into how to move beyond things like free breakfast, to being involved in important decisions around key features of the technology — things like, Are we building a backdoor into our encryption? Are you aware of any organizing at more important issues around what happens with the technology?
James: I hope there is! I don’t know personally. But that’s how archism works. People say, “Oh, I’m just doing this small thing, I’m just doing my job” — but collectively, it adds up to this big, awful thing. This is happening in academia too, by the way. We’re totally being sucked into this pattern of being the tollbooth operators of the future. We’re putting our courses online, and we think it’s all great. And then maybe they’ll just shoot us all, plug in the lecture, and have video A, B and so forth. We’re all involved in our own replacement, but we’re also involved in more sinister things, like creating crypto-whatever, and tracking each other. I heard in China now they have a version of Google Glasses that allows police to spot each and every person, and know where everyone is at any given time. But that’s why these forums are so critical — you can’t just gossip about it with your friends, you have to come together and organize about what’s screwed up. It’s not just management, either. I think that even if all the human actors are not horrible people, archism is still working through all of us to increase power and domination — it’s a logic that’s built into the system.
Q: Something I heard recently was, in Charlottesville, Airbnb didn’t allow white nationalists to book places to stay. And later I found out that there’s a working group at Airbnb organizing themselves, on their own initiative, and engineers that were just saying, “Fuck this, we’re not allowing this,” and they went through and kicked white nationalists off the platform. And if anyone has more details, please correct me. But the lesson I take from that is, you have to talk to the people you work with. And another lesson is, you have to work with the media. Because the story I heard is that what the workers did is, they leaked the story themselves to the press, so Airbnb corporate would have to be “Yeah, that’s our plan” when the media goes and says, “Oh look, Airbnb are heroes for this!”
James: That’s a fantastic story, and it’s exactly what I was talking about — when the rank and file force people at the top to go along with what they’ve done. Think about what would be possible if those people had more ways to talk to other people about what they’d done. It’s a model for a much bigger scaling of what you can do! So, that’s a great story. The opposite, of course, happened with Uber, when the Muslim ban came down and people were protesting at the airports and taxi drivers refused to take anyone to or from the airport, and Uber then tried to do some kind of surge pricing, make a billion dollars, and I think 300,000 split off of Uber — including me. It cuts both ways. The people at the top can do horrible things, and then people at the bottom can overcome.
Danny: Now we have only a bit of time, to talk. It’s something twc really emphasizes, having time to make time for people to meet each other. We had an orientation the other week for an hour, with a short intro and then 50 minutes to talk, and that wasn’t enough. And now we have 15. But one reason it wasn’t enough last week was, we had groups of six. So, maybe we can eek by with groups of 3 for 15. So, can you repeat the prompt?
James: Yea. How do you experience archism in your own jobs, the managerial control? And then how do you resist it? And, how do you scale that up?
Danny: Great. Let’s do that, find a group, share your names, make friends, and then we’ll take 5 to share back the wisdom with the group. And lastly, before we break, who’s not connected with Tech Workers Coalition, raise your hands? OK, go to www.techworkerscoalition.org.
Q: And I have more questions for you, James — is there a way to contact you?
James: Yes! You can send me an email at email@example.com.