PERKINS, Rudy. "Breaking With Libertarian Dogma: Lessons from the Anti-Nuclear Struggle"

Organization — (anarchist views on organization)OrganizationPERKINS, Rudy

Who are the real libertarians?

Noah Webster wasn’t much help. He says that a libertarian believes in free will.

Rudy Perkins uses the word "libertarian" as shorthand for "libertarian socialist." Presumably this usage is only necessary to separate himself from the tradition of authoritarian socialism, a tradition which includes social democratic reformism as well as Marxism-Leninism. As Bakunin declared: "socialism without liberty is tyranny."

For the past several years the affinity group I am part of has been participating in the movement against nuclear power. Specifically, we have been working with the Boston chapter of the Clamshell Alliance.’ When we began our involvement we had many serious criticisms of mass movements. and, in fact, largely considered ourselves ’anti-mass’. [1]Through our experience in the mass setting of the anti-nuclear movement several of us began to reconsider our attitude towards mass politics, as well as our unqualified support for a number of long-standing libertarian concepts.

We were forced to reevaluate these concepts because their application was leading to visible violation of more fundamental libertarian principles, particularly the principle of direct, participatory democracy: those affected make the decision. In general the old concepts began to appear too one-sided: to simply oppose anti-mass to mass, consensus to majority rule, local control to global management, decentralism to centralism, the small group to the large organization, was not enough. In fact, this easy antithesis was having disturbingly undemocratic consequences. These critical concepts are too important to discard, but too deficient to apply unilaterally. To rediscover their vitality, we must abandon them as dogma, and retrieve them as part of a new synthesis.

Because these lessons were learned in the context of the fight against nuclear power, I will repeatedly refer to the "anti-nuclear movement" and not "libertarian ideology" as exemplary of the dogma which must be reexamined. However, the anti-nuclear movement currently contains the most active expressions of libertarian doctrine in the U.S. All the concepts disputed here are key ingredients of the libertarian ideology prevalent both inside and outside the Clamshell Alliance, and it is often due to the efforts of other ’libertarians’ that these concepts appear so strongly, and in such pernicious forms, in the anti-nuclear movement.

Through our experiences in the anti-war movement, tenants’ battles, union work, food coops and other mass struggles, each of the members of our affinity group had become disillusioned with mass politics and united fronts. We were sick of the power grabbers and manipulators, the perpetual rebirth of hierarchy. We were tired of having to endure the same mistakes, and the same arguments, over and over. Tired of moving too slow because of other people’s confusion or inexperience; tired of moving back towards capitalism and the state because of other people’s liberalism or Leninism. We adopted an anti-mass position because we wanted to move forward alongside others with whom we already shared agreement, in a relationship of equal participation.

But anti-mass led to isolation. First, our theory was isolated from the real world and from adversaries. Unlike ideology or doctrine, theory is modified depending on results. To do this it needs concrete problems to tackle, and confrontation with contrary evidence and ideas. The mass setting of the anti-nuclear movement forced us to explain our ideas, and how they would actually work in real life. This helped us clarify our thinking, first to ourselves, then to others, and in terms that were more comprehensible and more concrete. This critique itself is a product of the mass movement dynamiting the doctrinaire and unworkable elements of our libertariansm, keeping the path clear for libertarian theory.

Second, we were isolated. We assumed that the soundness of our ideas would itself establish communication. That was mistaken. We, not just our written ideas, had to communicate, and that required the establishment of trust and friendship, a willingness to listen, and a sincere participation in the day to day work of the organization.

Susan S. "The Clamshell Alliance"
Source: Not Your Usual Cape Cod Photos

[1Mass movements are characterized by the heterogeneity of politics of their participants.

They are usually based on unity around one or a few demands, of ten of an oppositional nature (anti-war, antinuclear, etc.). As such their unity is basically determined by outside forces and circumstances, not by a collectively-held, positive vision of the future.

Anti-mass is an approach to creating revolution based on the "primacy of the collective," small groups whose members have the "same politics and the same method of struggle." "The collective does not communicate with the mass. It makes contact with other collectives. What if other collectives do not exist? Well, then it should talk to itself until they do. Yes. By all means, the collective also communicates with other people, but it never views them as a mass—as a constituency or audience. The collective communicates with individuals in order to encourage self-organization." (Anti-mass) The collective communicates with others not to get them to loin a mass movement, or even to loin the collective, but rather, to help them form their own collectives.

For a full discussion of mass and anti-mass, see the pamphlet Anti-mass: methods of organization for collectives from Anti-mass