Debate Magazine

The ACF experience

The Decline and Fall of the ACF

By Steve Parr, Libertarian Workers’ Group

It is now over six months since the Libertarian Workers’ Group withdrew from the ACF, with the majority of the organization following suit. I have had that time to reflect on the problem. and have formulated a few tentative ideas I would like to share with you all. I hope that the pages of this bulletin will see more of the same in the next few months, so that we can come to a better understanding of what we have gone through.

A bit of history: I and a number of other comrades entered the LWG — and thus the ACF, in the fall of 1978 with the collapse of the libertarian socialist paper Against the Grain. We had heard a little of ACF before that, but were skeptical, given the experience of SRAF [Social Revolutionary Anarchist Federation] and other attempts to build regional, national and continental anarchist organizations. Yet we saw in it a number of the people who we had corresponded with in Against the Grain and who we knew to be among the best libertarian militants in North America. So we decided to give it a chance. especially as the LWG was already affiliated when we joined it. and it seemed silly to withdraw or recon-sider at that point.

Thus many of us attended our first ACF conference in the spring and summer of 1979, at Ypsilanti and Toronto, respectively. Right away some problems became painfully apparent to us. First of all, there was a great deal of organizational inertia — it took tremendous effort to get the simplest thing done. My experience had taught me that this was a symptom of a deeper political illness, so I was already a bit wary.

Furthermore, there was a tremendous disparity in the political orientation of the affiliated groups, both theoretically and practically. Some groups were activists, some were passive and disparaged growth — or as they called it, “recruitment.” Some groups were class-struggle oriented, some considered it either a secondary or even unimportant problem. Even among the [class-struggle] groups, there were those who held on to a rigid, antiquated syndicalism inher-ited from the IWW circa 1905, while others saw a need to break with tradition.

Yet there was something there. What l saw was certainly head and shoulders above anything else we had seen in the anarchist movement in North America before. There was debate and discussion going on, even if not on the level we had hoped for. So we held our reservations and went on.

The first real indication to me of an irreparable division came at the labor conference we sponsored in New York City during Thanksgiving weekend of 1979. To us the issue of working-class politics was central, and it was exactly on this issue that there was the greatest division within the organization. Many expressed no interest whatsoever in the labor conference. Others, like Resurgence, had a concept of the workers’ movement so different from ours that it became clear that there was nothing in common. The Milwaukee conference that followed in early 1980 allayed my fears for a while. I will not hesitate to say that it was the most productive of the ACF conferences, and that the level of discussion was higher than I had seen in the Federation before. Furthermore, the North American Anarchist had become a reality, and even with all its flaws it was the best anarchist publication in North America for at least 30 years. As the only representative of my group at that conference, I went back with a positive report, and was able to convince the others in my group — many of whom had grown increasingly skeptical of, or indifferent to, the ACF, that it was worth a continued effort.

It was in Morgantown that July that it all came tumbling down for our group. It was that disastrous conference that convinced us that the ACF was played out and would soon begin to disintegrate. Why? First of all, the organizational inertia that had been part of earlier meetings was now increased three-fold — it was an effort even to convene a session. What discussion that did take place was often pointless, our opponents used red-baiting and proved clearly that they were unwilling to listen to anything [layout error – text missing]

…was very little to discuss anyway, as the ACF was doing little as a Federation.

Much attention at that conference was focused on the ACF Basis of Affiliation. The consensus seemed to be that the document was extremely flawed, that it did more to state what we weren’t than what we were (Resurgence [who authored the original draft} of course, disagreed). What was not discussed at as great a length was the cumbersomeness of the document— it imposed a great deal of structure on such a small organization that did so little anyway. I think, in retrospect, we focused a little too much on form instead of content when we critiqued it for being too structureless.

Again the issue was the politics itself — too vague, unclear — in- cohesiveness was built in to the organization. The year of fading away and senseless infighting that followed Morgantown should have been no surprise. It was for good reason that many of us stayed away from the Champaign conference in December, 1980. It had become obvious that there was nothing to be accomplished.

Let me just clarify the matter of the decision of our group to withdraw. It was not made lightly, but came after months and months of the painfully growing awareness that the ACF was a dead letter.

Furthermore, although I and others in our group had discussed the idea with many others in the Federation, we did not enter the meeting [at which we voted to withdraw] with the premeditated idea of withdrawing. It came after a discussion of almost two hours, and I think we were all surprised when the motion was made and the vote to disaffiliate passed with only one abstention.

Let me end by saying that we should not regret the experience of the ACF, and should understand its demise as being more or less inevitable, given the circumstances. The ACF was a transitional form, a transition from the amorphous do-your-own-thing anarchism of the late sixties and early seventies to the organized class-struggle anarchism we have been trying to forge since the mid-seventies, and that I believe will come to bear fruit before the end of the eighties. We needed to break with SRAF, and once we did, we needed to experiment with a certain organizational form before we could go on to the effort at regroupinent that this bulletin is a part of. Of course, there are many things we could have done better, but that is no new story. We should not be paralyzed by our fears and our regrets but go forward and realize our dream of a dynamic, working-class anarchism that will play its rightful role in the coming struggles for social revolution. ♦

Hey, General Custer, what were we doing there?

By Frank Stevens

One does not, in bourgeois culture at least, speak ill of the dead. People who have some kind of revolutionary aspirations may be expected to offer more accurate observations. When the Anarchist Communist Federation abruptly disintegrated last year, one could assume that there would be a tidal wave of position papers offering blame (or credit) and drawing political lessons for future attempts to build a revolutionary movement.

Not so. The end of ACF was met with a vast literary yawn. Nothing is so revealing of the passions of those who were part of ACF as the profound disinterest that greeted its demise. The only attempt to construct a continental anarchist-communist movement in the last two decades shattered . . . and no one really gave a shit!

Why didn’t ACF work? The commonest explanation I’ve heard goes something like this: ACF was made up of several political ten-dencies that could not, in the long run, function within the same organizational framework. As long as the various tendencies practiced a’kind of conscious self-restraint (i.e., refusing to bring up contro-versial political ideas), a superficial unity could be preserved.

However, as time went on, people in various tendencies grew impatient and began pressing their political points with greater vigor. . . and matters escalated to the point of disintegration.

It’s not a bad theory, but it doesn’t really go very far. Why, for example, did it not prove possible over the years for people who came into ACF with conflicting political views to work out an acceptable synthesis? Even if this was not possible in all cases, it should have been possible in some. But it didn’t happen. No new federation emerged from the ruins of ACF. If it lacked mourners, it also lacked heirs.

Perhaps the reason that no synthesis was forthcoming is that no one expected it or even wanted it. Nearly all of the groups that affiliated with ACF already existed prior to their affiliation. Each group had already formed a personal network with a more or less developed set of ideas. Joining

ACF could only be seen. at best, as an opportunity to convert other affiliates to one’s own set of ideas. Where people might have looked at each other as equals, to learn from as well as teach, instead they looked at each other as potential converts or (worse) rival theologians, partisans of the devil.

In such a matrix, there can be no identification with the common organization. ACF was an arena, not a movement. When you’ve done as much as you can reasonably hope to do in the arena, you go home.

Still, is it fair to boil everything down to bad faith‘? ACF certainly numbered a fair share of assholes in its ranks, but that can hardly be the only explanation.

One thing that certainly struck me over and over again in ACF was the enormous identification with this or that political movement of the past. I often had the impression I was speaking with political conservationists; that is, people who wanted to preserve a set of political views simply because of their venerability.

Let me clear about this: the history of past revolutionary movements is worthy of study. There is something useful to be learned in all of humanity’s attempts to free itself.

That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a personal, highly emotional identification with political phenomena of the distant past. In some cases, this went so far as to actually attempt to recreate the forms of those ancient move-ments, adopting titles and forms of language that once referred to the real world but are now of interest only to historians. ACF was not only an arena, but a peculiar kind of arena where ghostly forms fought their old fights over again . . .bloodlessly, of course. I can, in a way, understand this and even have some sympathy for it. It is fun to be (or play at being) some great anarchist or syndicalist revolutionary hero over the weekend. But then, Monday morning arrives in all its dismal reality and you have to get up and go to work. So you look forward to the next meeting or conference, where you can play again. We all need some form of escape from class society, right?

But no one puts their life on the line on behalf of their entertainment. Most people in ACF never put their hearts into it, never took seriously its revolutionary potential, never thought for a moment that it could actually be possible to overthrow class society. Even those who took their ghostly roles seriously could not really believe that this rhetoric might someday really count for something.

It is ironic to think that all these people invested their energies in ghostly role-playing while never examining their own possibilities at all. Maybe it is easier to re-enact ancient failures than to risk failure on your own. If you do exactly what some classical anarchist or syndicalist did and it doesn’t work, you can put the blame on him.

But we know who’s really to blame, don’t we? All past revolutionary movements failed to liberate us from class society. How can we do better?

How can we develop a useful synthesis of the best ideas of past revolutionary movements? Are there altogether new approaches to revolutionary struggle suggested by contemporary class society?

What would an egalitarian mass revolutionary organization look like and what steps could we take in that direction? In ACF, there were a small number of people who tried to raise and deal with these real questions.

Their efforts were resented and, in the context of ACF, unsuccessful.

Yet they were the only living revolutionaries in ACF, and some of them, at least, will doubtless be found in the next new attempt to build a revolutionary movement that can go all the way. But for the ghostly majority, as always, requiescant in pace.

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