Alpine Anarchist meets Cindy Milstein

October 2012

A German translation of your essay "Anarchism and Its Aspirations" will be out with Unrast Verlag next year. What’s the story behind the essay? Had you written similar pieces before?

Rather than an earlier draft or previously published piece, this essay started out as a talk, or rather talks that I gave a bunch of times in many versions. For one, I realized that no one seemed to be doing “intro to anarchism” type things at anarchist bookfairs. I never quite meant to do “intro to anarchism” talks so many times, but it also seems that many people don’t like to do them, so I get asked to do them a lot, especially since this book came out. I’m committed to lifelong learning and mentoring—as constant, reciprocal forms, since I always learn and am mentored, in turn, when doing one of these talks—and also helping to encourage present and future generations of radicals. That means patiently being willing to explain one’s beliefs in clear ways when others are ready and want to hear about them.

But equally, I wanted to personally work through a dilemma: that I know I feel “at home” with nearly every type of anarchist, yet there are many anarchist tendencies that I have small to profound differences with, or even feel wholly at odds to. I wanted to understand what, if anything, makes all us anarchists feel understood among ourselves, without having to explain our basic assumptions to each other -- the assumptions that underlie our views, practices, lives, and visions. We all get, for example, that statist forms of organizing are neither natural nor desirable, without having to say so, and thus our conversations around politics are comprehensible in a way that, for instance, they aren't when I'm talking to people who hold the hegemonic perspective the governance is equivalent to a state.

So there were two audiences for “Anarchism and Its Aspirations” when I did it as a talk: those new or coming to anarchism; and those folks who were anarchists, but didn’t seem to get that we share enough assumptions to make that word (and its practices, etc.) meaningful. It was also a personal plea that anarchists should extend solidarity to each other and understand that we’re basically in this together. Sadly, too often, there’s way too much mean-spiritedness between anarchists.

Beyond talks, I seem to frequently play the role of “friendly anarchist” bringing “all sides” together, not out of some instrumental or pragmatic organizing strategy, but because I truly do think there are some principles and practices (the ones that I articulate in this book, though I’m sure there are others too) that bind us so tightly, despite differences, that it makes complete sense for us to be friendly, cooperative, offer mutual aid, etc. Not only should we be striving to approximate our ethics in our lived behavior toward each other; it seems to make obvious sense that us anarchists acting in concert will strength our chances of influencing social transformation too.

AK Press had long wanted a modern-day “intro to anarchism” book, but one that also brought anarchism into the present, showing what’s different about it now. A few of the AK folks had heard my talk in person, I think, plus had listened to various YouTube versions of it, and they asked if it would be OK for an AK person to transcribe a couple talks that were recorded, merge them together, and have me edit them into a book. Suzanne Shaffer of AK did that, over many long hours, and I’m grateful for her help. Sadly, though, I realized when I saw my spoken words on paper, especially from older versions of talks I didn’t even agree with anymore, that I just had to write the book.

In critiquing my first draft, one of the AK editors, Charles Weigl, astutely noted that I was “speaking” to two audiences in the book (he actually showed me how I did that grammatically!), and that I should clearly pick one to keep my work more focused. One audience were newcomers, and the other were my anarchist friends, or folks who’d been anarchists a long while; I wrote to that second audience because it felt embarrassing to seemingly simplify anarchism. I didn’t want to lose the nuance, and self-consciously, didn’t want people to think I felt anarchism was so easy to define and achieve. But in the end, honing in on those new to anarchism made for a sharper argument and thus a better book. So the book still speaks to both, yet without my “apologetic” tone to the second audience (i.e., “Yes, I know better, but I have to tell newcomers this, or that”).

I’m honestly not sure it’s really an introduction per se. In fact, I don’t much like that term, as if it’s dummying-down anarchism. Rather, I feel it’s accessible for those newcomers who aren’t used to its shorthand or assumptions, while also being a reminder to longtime anarchists that, damn it, there is something special about our politics, something worth keeping and fighting for, something not to be embarrassed about, and something that makes anarchism distinctive—as well as something that interconnects all anarchists. Given that anarchists seem to “disappear” as they age past twenty-seven or thirty, such a “reminder” is just as critical, I feel, as the encouragement (or welcoming hand) that this book offers to those thinking of becoming an anarchist.