This interview originally appeared in the first issue of Praxis, journal of the Red & Anarchist Action Network (Summer, 2003)
George Katsaficas is a professor of Humanities and Social Studies at the Wentworth Institute of Technology. In 2001 he spent time reasearching the Kwangju uprising in South Korea. He is the editor of New Political Science and the author of several books including The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life and Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968. He has also editted several books, most recently The Battle for Seattle. A close friend of Herbert Marcuse, Katsiaficas runs the website ErosEffect.com.
RAAN came into contact with Katsiaficas mostly as a result of his phenomenal work in The Subversion of Politics, a book that deals in part with the German Autonomen and Italian Autonomia. After a few exchanges in dialogue, RAAN was able to conduct this interview, in which we have tried to hit upon some practical solutions to common problems within the anti-authoritarian movement.
June 1, 2003 Gwangju (South Korea)
RAAN: To what extent do you see a need for an open alliance between anti-statist forces, and what forms have such alliances taken in the past? What do you feel has been the main cause for division amongst anti-statists, and what are the necessary steps that you feel need to be taken to obtain a unifying open alliance of these anti-statists?
George Katsiaficas: In my opinion, one of the main problems dividing the radical movement has been and continues to be an obsessive compulsion to define ideology first rather than unity on the basis of action and program. By this I mean an over-theoretical orientation—“Zerzanists” vs. “Bookchinites” as a contemporary example in the anti-statist movement. Consider for a moment, the radical movement of the 1960s, which had not widely developed an anti-statist position but which was nevertheless quite radical and active, pulling in millions of people into a militant movement that opposed the government and momentarily posed the idea of a revolution. I remember a story about one of the final Students for a Democratic Society conventions in 1968 with thousands of people present. The PL (Maoist/workerist) faction insisted Albania was a “socialist” country and should be supported. The RYM (Revolutionary Youth Movement) disagreed. Hundreds of people were chanting, “Ho Ho Ho Chi-Minh, NLF is going to win!” against the other side chanting “Mao, Mao Mao Tse-tung, Revolution by the young.” During a brief pause, someone in the back yelled, “What’s the capital of Albania??” Silence followed. No one in the room even knew the name of the city. The eloquence of this silence speaks volumes to the overideologization of the movement and the waste of thousands of activists’ energies. Actually it’s worse than a waste—it’s the counterrevolution inside the movement, the prevalence of dead labor, weighing like a “nightmare on the brains of the living.”
RAAN: To what extent have autonomous movements in the past been attacked or hindered by the political left (Leninists, Greens, etc), and what can be done to minimize the damage done?
GK: In the latter part of the 20th century, the best revolutionary organizations in the Americas developed outside—or in opposition to the established left. Think of the Fidelistas in Cuba, the Tupamaros, Sandinistas, SDS and the Black Panther Party (in its young and radical days). Autonomous movements in Italy and Germany were quite confrontational vis-a-vis the established Left and the Greens (as I discuss in The Subversion of Politics).
Developing our own open councils, general assemblies, and other venues of discussion and action is necessarily difficult because of the attendance of sects and ideologists. In Berlin, Turkish Stalinists insisted on carrying giant posters of Stalin in the Mayday marches. One year, people tried to make them leave, but the Stalinists hurt many people with iron bars and insisted on staying. Building movements as opposed to hierarchical organizations often requires autonomous space in which sectarian groups refuse to participate. In Ocean Beach, California, for example, the movement was built in a “white, youth ghetto” repugnant to groups of the traditional left, thereby allowing the free development of alternative institutions as well as anti-war and anti-racist centers of organizing in San Diego generally. (See the last part of Andre Gorz’s book, Ecology as Politics for discussion of OB.)
RAAN: The autonomous movements and near-revolutions of the 60s and 70s represented a return to the union of revolutionary theory and practice in the workers' movement, which had been at the mercy of Stalinism and Social Democracy since the end of WWI. Is there a similar potential for the rebirth of these movements within the current political climate?
GK: Currently a diffuse but global uprising is occurring against neo-liberalism. From Atenco, Mexico (where people stopped the new airport) to Peru (stopping privatization of water) to Nigeria, Ecuador, the Zapatistas and many others, the broad popular upsurge is building momentum. While increasingly active, workers in Europe, Japan and the USA have often been at the tail of such movements. As material conditions deteriorate, these workers will become more radicalized. They will set themselves in motion, aligning themselves (as in Seattle) with more radical strata in the core and periphery and possibly using them as models. A few years after the anti-war movement tried to shut down Washington DC in 1971, farmers brought their tractors to DC in a similar attempt. This is an example of what I name the “eros effect”—the intuitive spread of tactics and movements without direct organizational intervention. We need to build our militant circles as tightly and radically as possible, and have confidence that even though small, our actions speak to the society at large.
RAAN: You don't speak of the particulars of organization and method in The Subversion of Politics. For instance, guerrilla radio has been popular among North American anti-authoritarians and the Internet has made names like the Midnight Notes Collective celebrities among the circle of anti-statists. What role have these planes of communication played in autonomous movements?
GK: First, I am anti-celebrity. The effect of celebs in the movement is to depoliticize the popular upsurge and co-opt it into the hierarchical fame-status-power structure.
In terms of the German Autonomen, they developed before the Internet. Nowadays the web is a powerful organizing tool but can never replace face-to-face action. Radio and possibly even internet TV will continue to be important venues for radical practice—as will electronic bulletin boards, list serves and other electronic forms. This tendency is today nowhere more developed than in South Korea, where millions of people were mobilized against the USA after two schoolgirls were killed by a US military vehicle.
RAAN: In your explanation of the Italian Autonomia you mentioned the Red Zoras, Red Brigades, and Prima Linea as different strands of guerrilla tactics to other autonomous sects like the Metropolitan Indians, Lotta Continua, etc. Have these different inter-class divisions served as autonomous inclusiveness of oppressed groups such as women, youth, etc or do you see them as furthering capitalist antagonism? Why?
GK: I disagree with the characterization of the Metropolitan Indians as a sect. In fact they are a model to me of how not to be a sect. In their multiplicity of views, ease of action and communalism, we find the basics of nonsectarian organization.
For me the universal resides in the particular. Feminism is in everyone’s interest. Black music appeals to us all. Fighting racism is in all our interest. Within separate groups, advanced activists need to elicit the universal appeal of the particular group and need for coordinated visions and actions. Some need to unite in organizations that are not defined by “identity” but not all!
RAAN: Still referring to the above inter-class divisions, do you feel violence or militancy has been fetishized into a macho, and therefore patriarchal or ageist, tendency?
GK: Yes and no. “Chaos days” and Mayday in Berlin have often been criticized as ritualized male violence, but I believe there is also a moment in their occurrence that builds militant experience, tempers activists’ street savvy and builds affinity groups’ reliance on each other. In my view, popular and militant street actions play a vital role in enhancing the movement’s systematic critique of the existing social order and deepening peoples’ commitment.
RAAN: For those who bring offense to your group, whether it is verbal/physical/sexual or otherwise, what do you think is the best course of action? I would assume for serious problems excommunication is in order, but wouldn’t that allow for a much more dangerous situation where your group would be compromised (IE: character assassinations and clique formations)?
GK: Groupthink can be a serious problem in understanding what exactly an offense to the group is. One of the primary tasks today is to build our capacity for dual power. The system will not permit autonomous courts, judgments and sentences but in some cases we must be able to carry them out. What about police infiltrators? What about rapists in our midst?
RAAN: What methods of outreach have been used in broader spectrum outreach? In the German autonomous movements there's a strong sense of it as a particularly youth based movement that lacked connection to workers, housewives, etc. In your opinion, what can be done to overcome particular class orientations and provide a stronger inclusiveness?
GK: Revolutionary subject emerges in the course of the revolution, as Marcuse observed. What this means is that people themselves are capable to self-organize and propel themselves onto the stage of history. In the Gwangju Uprising, as I have extensively written and spoken about (www.eroseffect.com), people fought to expel heavily armed paratroopers from the city and then quickly cooperated with each other to run the city in a far more humane and just manner than previously thought possible. Everywhere where revolts occur, we see that the people themselves are far superior to ensconced elites in their ability to justly and peacefully manage society. Inclusiveness proceeds from the self-activation of people based on their own internal needs and desires, not their imposition from a vanguard as Lenin thought. In moments of crisis, however, the question of a new hegemonic bloc is critical.
RAAN: When discussing the German squatter's movement and specifically the defense of Hafenstrasse, you mention the tactics used to repel police forces. From your understanding of these police confrontations, did a sustained period of time in these autonomous movements nurture any career activism or "professionalization" because of constant evolution of tactics of resistance, or what exactly was the response to over-familiarity or "sceneism"?
GK: Yes, because of the continuing intensity of the confrontations, the Hafenstrasse became a difficult place for women and children to live in. At one point all the children—and many of the women—had moved out. As the houses were legalized and funds allocated by the government for their renovation, Red Anna, a long-time militant, became something of a city planner in working up plans for the renovations. People structured the newly won space to insure the collective form of living groups. Whether or not the house remains radical after the Victory was won is a question I cannot answer. I have not been there in many years.
RAAN: How is in-group communication typically encouraged? Are roles (cook, cleaner, speaker, etc) rotated to ensure everyone has an equal role as well as ensuring everyone knows how the entire collective works in case people are removed/arrested? How does one foster the group spirit without creating Groupthink (everyone just agreeing because the larger group says something)? Should there be set organizational principles where independent persons are assigned the task of opposing decisions simply for the purpose of creating a critical atmosphere?
GK: Actually in my experience, the reverse problem—i.e. of good-hearted but disruptive individuals—is more common. Forging decisions by consensus is always desirable but not always possible. In no way should organizations mandate dissent if it does not organically emerge. We in the USA are individualistic more than enough to insure dissent and internal debate. Indeed, everyone wanting to be the leader—particularly among males—is too much of a problem in the USA.
It is highly idealistic to expect to do everything equally. Yes, shit work like taking the garbage out and other such tasks need to be shared. But some people are better writers, musicians, cooks, or public speakers than others. While it is desirable to rotate such tasks, it is not always most productive. On the other hand, since publicly identified “leaders” are jailed, killed, sent into exile, or more commonly in the rich countries, co-opted into the system’s control center, care should continually be taken to develop the skills and abilities of every member of the movement. If we are able to multiply through the ongoing efforts of everyone, rather than simply add new members through the brilliance of orators and charisma of individuals, we will build a stronger, more resilient movement.