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Anarchists: Can they get it together?

Sunday, February 02, 2003

One of the most visible but least-explored tributaries of the anti-war left comprises a group of people, mostly young, who dress in black, conceal their faces with masks and combine street theater with street fighting. They call themselves anarchists.

When a masked group tore loose from Sunday's anti-war demonstration in Oakland and tramped down to a Marine recruiting station to smash its glass door, it was led by a bloc of anarchists. Last year, when demonstrators smashed truck windows and traded blows with racists on the streets of York, police found themselves rounding up anarchists. From the streets of Seattle to the parks of Washington, anarchism -- and here they take care to distinguish between anarchism, the philosophy, and anarchy, which is what their critics say erupts when its adherents gather -- has found a home and platform as war hovers.

Western Pennsylvania has a long history with anarchists. After William McKinley was shot, families identified as anarchists were driven out of some coal communities. In Pittsburgh, Alexander Berkman, an anarchist, shot Henry Clay Frick in retaliation for the Battle of Homestead in 1892. As the 20th century was aborning, the term anarchist was sufficient to demonize the far left.

They make headlines, but do they make sense?

Because anarchist tactics invariably overshadow the message, onlookers are left to wonder at what seems mindless violence and obstructionism. Some people do find a vague charm in the political aesthetic of anarchism. Yet even they wonder if these young protesters are using it as a means to some other end, given that they define their philosophy by what they are opposing, be it war, capitalism, world trade or the police.

All of this led me to an Internet-wired coffee bar in Oakland last week to sit across the table from a quiet-spoken 20-year-old man named Nathan Shaffer. He was unique in several ways, not the least of them being that, unlike most of his comrades in the movement, he was willing to use his real name and spoke without an elaborate set of preconditions. When I returned to my office, I had a more typical correspondence from an anarchist, who wrote under the name "Rovin' Worker," declined to speak by telephone and demanded an advance view of my column.

It is this penchant for anonymity, for noms de guerre, black garb and red-and-black flags of revolution that provide the current anarchist movement with both its cachet and its largest obstacle. Its foreignness makes it simultaneously alluring and repellent to onlookers. It has caused police to club them and Bolsheviks to shoot them.

But where the smashed window or street fight is what makes the television screens, anarchism as a philosophy does not require violence. For every smashed window, there are a dozen or more meetings about the fine points of collective decision-making and regional democracy.

Shaffer, who looks a bit like a young Che Guevara, with a majestic swatch of black hair and matching beard, nibbled at fried tofu and explained the anarchist program in the quiet voice of the average seminarian. In sum, anarchism encompasses the idea that nationalism -- as in nation-states, capitalist free markets and centralized authority be it law enforcement or military -- must be abolished. Most of the arguments within the movement center on whether this is to be achieved by revolution or by slow atrophy and, then, what will replace that which has been wiped away.

"The revolution I envisage," said Shaffer, "is step-by-step, building the world we would like to live in over time until the world no longer feels it needs states."

His theory "rejects the idea that a small group of people know what's best for society." It is, in sum, a sort of socialist libertarianism, but as Shaffer points out, "We can't really say libertarian anymore" because that side of the rhetorical map has been captured by the right.

This combination of personal libertarian views, coupled with the theory that people can be individuals only among other people, leads the anarchists to accept the idea of shared property, shared societies, but a sort of direct democracy that makes a political unit larger than a village or neighborhood hard to imagine.

"I'm pretty much what people call a 'municipalist.' I'm interested in seeing people's actual needs being met on a local level," Shaffer said. "There's room for organization. The idea that you can have regional decision-making."

The only prominent instance of a society actually attempting to put anarchism into place as a system of governance was Spain in 1936, when large areas of the Iberian peninsula evolved into anarchist syndicates. In areas where fascist militia had been driven out, villagers pooled land, tools and cattle and, in many instances, crop production increased while unemployment declined. Schools were set up along the lines of the anarchist philosopher Francisco Ferrer.

The experiment ended with the triumph of Francisco Franco's army. In what direction it might have grown is the stuff of conjecture. But the thought of such a system in a technologically advanced industrial nation such as the United States sounds weird.

"I do not have a problem with people working hard," Shaffer said. Anarchists are not advocating a return to the Stone Age or the elimination of technology. They are, however, advocating such an upending of the current order that it is hard to imagine how a neighborhood such as Oakland, a collection of universities and hospitals run by hierarchies, would function.

Shaffer suggested something on the order of medical collectives. It sounds an implausible way to get a liver transplant.

Like others who broke away from the peace rally last Sunday, Shaffer found himself marching behind a banner that read "No War Between the Nations, No Peace Between the Classes." The theory of class warfare is embraced without apology, as is the theory that, come the day of the anarchist, there won't be any nations to make war.

A quaint ideal, yes. But he insists it is one he will hold throughout his life, although many an youthful anarchist has found himself in midlife with a house in the suburbs and Thursday nights spent at the Rotary meeting.

"I sincerely hope not," Shaffer said.

They are, if nothing else, hopeful.


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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