To be an anarchist: Ruymán Rodríguez
We share once again an essay, in translation, by Ruymán Rodríguez of the FAGC – Federación de Anarquistas Gran Canaria (alasbarricadas.org 26/03/2017). What follows is a critical reflection on what it means to be an anarchist, born of Rodríguez’s experience with the FAGC. To simply characterise his position as “anti-intellectual” would be, I believe, a mistake. It is rather a call to all who would assume the name “anarchist” to seriously think or re-think what that term means; indeed, it is to ask the question of whether the anarchist “identity” is of any relevance, and if so, in what way, with what meaning.
Since I was very young and I began to have contact with other anarchists outside my circle, I was always surprised by the way in which what we might call “anarchist identity” was approached. Yes, it is certainly understood as an identity, a cultural, philosophical, political, social identity. I was always told with an air of solemnity and with bright eyes focused on the horizon: “Me, an anarchist? Someday, I would like to be one. I am with it”. Or also: “Me an anarchist? The word is too big for me. It is a process, I am trying”. The violin music and the covering of snow that never falls in the Canaries was missing. Me, in spite of not being an expert in the matter and with my head full of readings, I didn’t quite know if I believed myself a part of it.
With the passing of time, I didn’t see this way of talking lessen. To convert oneself to anarchism demands for some an exercise of initiation: from scum to a higher being. It’s a process of years that calls for reading, formation, the learning of codes and a thousand formal requirements. It is almost like an opposition. To oppose, for the anarchist, is an arduous labour.
We will all have heard that one is an anarchist 24 hours a day and similar things. Victor Serge wrote in his memoirs: “Anarchism possessed us completely because it asked of us everything, it offered us everything. There was not a nook of life that it did not illuminate, or at least this was how it seemed. One could be catholic, protestant, liberal, radical, socialist, syndicalist even, without changing anything in one’s life, in life consequently”.
I have also said similar things, and they still seem correct. But I don’t see being an anarchist full time a condemnation, an act of constriction that should be repeated sleeping or even in the toilet. It is in part an attitude, a of way of relating to others and of understanding life, and also an empirical proposal that seeks coherence between ideas and acts, and this with difficulty implies partiality. We can’t be diabetics twelve hours a day, even though I recognise that it would be advantageous to compare it to an illness of the pancreas. Paul Válery said that “each person carries within her/him a dictator and an anarchist”. Let us call anarchist that person in whom the second facet manifests itself more and with greater strength combats the first.
Having said this, and admitting that the anarchist is someone who seeks coherence, in respect to what does s/he seek it? At times, it seems to me that one searches for coherence between ideas that one has and those that one wants to have. Ideas can be easy to acquire, but they are above all easy to feign. Our pursuit of coherence is not, generally, between ideas and acts, which would be logical, but is purely formal. It is for this reason that we give such importance to what we say and also to what we think, and so little to what we do.
From all of this comes what I call “search for degrees of moral perfection”. We are concerned with this interior part of being an anarchist and, paradoxically, extremely exhibitionist part. We want to have an apparently anarchist language, some supposedly anarchist habits, yet there is not even a minimal effort to do anything practically anarchist. Anarchism thus converts itself into a religion or a transcendentalist philosophy, where one continues to reach grades of illumination or wisdom until arriving at Nirvana or some stage of superior consciousness. As if we were Buddhist monks or Christian mystics. In the FAGC [Federación de Anarquistas Gran Canaria], it is already common to joke about the “degrees of anarchist perfection” that we have reached: 9 is the grade reached by the anarchist who is no longer capable of creating a shadow, and 10, the highest level known, is when one can engage in photosynthesis.
Anarchism so understood, as an unattainable goal that implies martyrdom, like an exclusive and elitist club that calls for an entry exam, doesn’t interest me. Yes, we should be coherent, but coherence demands a correlation between what we say and what we do, and this perhaps implies saying things that are realistic. A tortoise that affirms that it cannot fly would be as honest as it would be coherent. Coherence is recognising one’s own contradictions, and also one’s limits. Coherence is assuming that life itself, that the life that surrounds us, impedes us, if we wish to preserve it, from doing everything that we would like to. Coherence is trying to change this, but admitting the difficulty of this and the personal and collective failures involved. Coherence is not ceasing to breadth so as to comply with dogma; coherence is keeping oneself alive so as to aspire to change what we would like to change. Recognising that it is impossible to be perfect, that it is impossible to fly, as the tortoise recognises, is coherent. Coherence is conflict and quest, not perfection and snobism.
On the other hand, we can feign all the coherence that we want, however coherence implies content. To be an anarchist has become a question of form more than substance, of respecting superficial cultural codes omitting what is done in practice and when the assembly is over. In this sense, I have known more anarchism outside anarchist circles than inside. We can forcefully try, for example, to use non-sexist language, as I have in this article, and formally assume opposition to hetero-patriarchy. I have known many men who were very rigorous with their language, scrupulous in their discourse, who stated that they had read every feminist book that fell into their hands and that they were aware of the “latest” work. Guys who attend workshops or even, without blushing, give them. Self-titled “allies” who, when the focus dims, in the way they treat their partners, were hierarchical, despotic and tyrannical, as well as classist and authoritarian when they interacted with women of the neighbourhood which they looked down upon. Individuals formally against gender oppression who felt the most lively aversion to “chonis” [“pussy”] and gypsies, and who for every woman who approached, they could do nothing better than stick on them an objectifying cliché. And I also knew women who would reprimand their friends if they did not submit to these “alfa machos”, while listening to them speak of de Beauvoir, Preciado, micro-machismos or their opposition to romantic love.
On the other hand, I have known men who did not know the name of any feminist author, who state that they were never able to finish a whole book, who don’t use non-sexist language, who don’t know any sophisticated concept regarding the deconstruction of gender roles and who don’t know the meaning of hetero-patriarchy. And yet these same men, without any academic education, don’t treat their equals as inferior or subaltern; don’t shut off their partners from conversations, nor keep them away from decision making; don’t believe that they should illuminate or guide them; they listen to them attentively in assemblies and they recognise them as references when their work or their example serves as an inspiration. They will not be able to elaborate a learned discourse about gender oppression, but never will they take advantage of excuse of a supposed “safe space” to assault a partner. The women neighbours, my closest female comrades, prefer to struggle with the second.
What has been said applies to all anarchist expressions. We place all the weight on the discourse, but what is truly important is what we do. It is our acts that must speak for us and define who we are. No possible coherence can exist if we don’t have a real activity that can confront our ideas. To be an anarchist, understood as a merely philosophical, theoretical process, like the acquisition of an intellectual status that separates us from the pleb, is something that sickens me and absolutely disinterests me. To consider oneself an anarchist, with the idea of distinguishing oneself from the rest and to throw them a look of disdain from a position of supposed moral superiority, is simple and naked aristocracy. From this come the sermons and the oppressive insistence in converting the infidels. It is anarchist evangelisation.
My anarchism is something else. my anarchism does not serve to separate me from others, but to approach them. It serves to understand the contradictions of others and to see how much of them are in me. It serves to accustom myself to demanding nothing of others beyond what I demand of myself. I don’t want being an anarchist to be something difficult and tortuous, but rather something easy, accessible, within reach of everyone. I reject Émile Armand when he said that “anarchism is not for those inept for effort”. I refuse this. I don’t want an anarchism for intellectual athletes, for champions of abstract thought and übermensch from some Leni Riefenstahl documentary. I want an anarchism precisely that can be the patrimony of all of those who have up until now been excluded from the summits of minds, the committees of the wise, from the classrooms and the academies. I want that we who are branded cripples, physical and mental, that we can make anarchism ours and to spit it inn the face of those who relegate it to the universities, the salons, the collectives of the converted and study groups. I want that this anarchism of daily life, that is woven in our many relations, in our neighbourhood assemblies, in our common kitchen pots, in our gardens, on our picket lines, in our conflicts in the neighbourhood, ends up being accepted as a quick and efficient way of becoming an anarchist without necessarily calling anyone that, without taking on any folklore, nor sharing any fetishism of flags, symbols or initials.
I want that being an anarchist be something close, accessible and available, that the anarchists be defined by their activity and not only by the ideas that they claim to defend. I want that this intuitive anarchism, without name or seal, be recognised as an expression of first order anarchism. That an anarchist theory foreign to practice and reality is like a piece of refined crystal, pure and unstained, brilliant, but tremendously fragile and breakable. While the anarchism of the neighbourhood, of the street, based on experimentation and practice, the anarchism that I defend, is more like an untreated rock, with earth and full of notches, but tremendously solid and polished by use. I want that anarchism definitively cease to be marked by the handling of professors, that we take it from the shop windows and share it with the people, that it be like a small paper that people can take with them all day in their pocket, full of the folds of all of the times that it has been folded and unfolded, dirty and worn out by so much use.
And if this is never accepted by the official anarchists? Very well then. Another anarchism, without intellectual complexes or itches, to the blows of paving stones and work in the street, will end taking up positions and passing them on the left. Profound changes don’t wait for consensus.