February 12, 2002
Jornadas Anarquistas: Anarchist
Convergence in Porto Alegre, Brazil
Over the week of February 1-5, I joined over 150 anarchists from 17 countries in Porto Alegre, Brazil for the Jornadas Anarquistas (JA) parallel conference to the World Social Forum (WSF). It was the middle of a pleasantly hot summer there, and both the good and the bad feelings of the season were noticeable throughout the week. Present were anarchists from a wide range of tendencies including autonomists, anarchocommunists, anarchospecificists, anarchosyndicalists, Reichians, libertarian socialists, utopian socialists, and quilombos amongst others. The countries represented were largely South American, as one might expect, including 15 organizations from Brazil such as the Federacao Anarquista Gaucha (FAG), the Asociacion Cultural Quilombo Cecilia (ACQC) and the Laboritorio de Estudios Libertarios (CELIP). Other organizations from the Americas included the Organizacion Socialista Libertaria (OSL) and Grupo Anarquista de Cordoba (GAC) of Argentina, Bisagra and Federacion Anarquista Uruguay (FAU) of Uruguay, Colectivo Libertario (CLSCSB) of Bolivia, CLLAC of Chile, and the IWW, NEFAC, and CLAC of the United States and Canada. From continental Europe, Spain's CGT, France's Alternative Libertaria (AL), Sweden's SAC, and Switzerland's OSL were all present as well.
My role there was twofold.
First and foremost, I was there to do research for an extended
essay I am working on called Nonwestern Anarchism: Rethinking
the Global Context, which will be an overview and analysis of
the history of anarchism in countries outside the North American
and European context. My goal is to show that anarchism has been
improperly understood by most as a primarily Western (or Northern)
phenomenon, when actually it has been an extremely significant
force in the rest of the world as well. From Turkey to China
and from South Africa to Brazil, anarchism during the first quarter
of the twentieth century was a world-historical movement that
had an untimely fall from it's trajectory with the rise of the
Bolshevik Party in Russia. With so many Latin American countries
represented, the conference was to prove an amazingly rich source
of information for my research, as I found myself repeatedly
surprised by the many insights I gained as a result. All of these
strengthened my argument far more than I would have imagined.
If anyone would like to read the text of this when it has been
completed, please contact me at email@example.com and I will
email it to you. I am also currently seeking a publisher, so
please spread the word.
Each day during the week,
I would wake up, throw on some clothes (which were entirely too
black for the amount of sun I would be exposed to) and rush over
still bleary-eyed and half asleep to attend the JA meetings from
9 am to 12 noon. Each day there were speakers discussing topics
ranging from the anarchocommunist thought of Erricco Malatesta
to the anti-Bolshevik campaign of Nestor Makhno to the free sexuality
advocated by Wilhelm Reich. The afternoons were open for people
to socialize, to visit a nearby squatted building, or to attend
the official WSF events. I learned shortly that the only thing
that had kept the anarchist section from being part of the WSF
was the fact that the local organizing committee was dominated
by the Workers Party and had refused local anarchists participation
in its planning and execution. But no matter, as anarchists have
often done throughout history, the FAG simply picked up the pieces
and went ahead and organized it's own contingent regardless,
publicizing the meetings through small photocopied leaflets which
were distributed to WSF participants at the PUC campus.
On the sidelines of the room
were up to five tables of anarchist periodicals, books, t-shirts,
CDs, and other paraphernalia. Periodicals that could be bought
included two glossy-covered beauties, one called "LetraLivre:
A Journal of Libertarian Culture, Art and Literature," and
the other "Ruptura: A Publication of the Libertarian Studies
Laboratory." The Declaration of Principles of the Third
Congress of the FAG was available, as was a 22 page pamphlet
called "Anarchism and Feminism in Brazil" (which I
bought, hoping to get it translated into English). Black and
white photocopied publications included Porto Alegre's "Opiniao
Anarquista", Rio de Janeiro's "Libera" and "O
Popular," and Sao Paulo's "Combate Anarquista,"
"Imprensa Libertaria" and "Boletim da Resistencia
Popular." Uruguayan anarchists brought their publication
"Bisagra" as did several other South American anarchist
Each day at JA I would seek out someone who could help to translate at least an overview of the proceedings, as well as to assist in interactions with individuals as well. Variably this would be a fellow U.S. citizen who understood Portuguese moderately well, or a Brazilian citizen who understood English moderately well. Some days I lucked out and ended up with very good translation, other days I was not so lucky. My shallow understanding of Portuguese and Spanish definitely helped me to get by, though. Almost every Brazilian I came across understood my Spanish, though I also noticed that few Spanish speakers could understand Portuguese. I guess what I learned from these language problems was that those of us in the northern region of the Americas really ought to do the work to actually learn Spanish or Portuguese so that we can communicate. Alas, it is easier said than done, of course.
Though I met with anarchists
from many countries, my primary contact over the week was with
the local Porto Alegre members of the FAG of Brazil. I met the
General Secretary, the International Secretary and at least one
or two other secretaries. These positions they held in the organization
were not positions of authority, they were positions of responsibility.
So for instance, the job of the International Secretary was to
answer emails, letters, phone calls and other inquiries from
around the world about the FAG. She has no more authority than
any other member has, rather she just has a specific mandate
she is expected to carry out. As a result I was repeatedly directed
towards her whenever I would ask questions. After this had happened
several times, I decided in order to learn more about the history
of the FAG and of anarchism in general in the country, I would
arrange an interview and discussion with her over breakfast.
She agreed, and an amazingly multilingual member of the Spanish
CGT helped to translate (between English, Portuguese and Swedish,
no less), with Hannele Peltonen, General Secretary of the SAC,
adding to the questions and discussion as well. Following is
a synopsis of what I learned from the very interesting discussion
that we had:
The 2001 ILS meeting occurred
during the sixth year of existence of the FAG. The federation
began in 1995, emerging out of an array of elements in society
including the punk scene, working people, marginalized people,
and some students. These diverse elements got together because
they were tired of just talking about theory, they wanted to
actually do something in reality. So they began to look for examples
in South America of how anarchist theory could be put into practice.
Shortly they were exposed to anarchist organizations in Uruguay,
which ended up having a great deal of influence on the formation
of the FAG. Of these, the FAU in Montevideo was the most important
as it had been around for 45 years, even through the many dictatorships
that had ruled the country. Such a track record was rather impressive
to such a new organization, and an important relationship began
between the two groups of anarchists.
As anarchospecifists, the FAG works on two levels: the anarchist level and the social level. On the social level they work to build a common front with the popular movements around a common agenda. On the anarchist level they organize specifically as anarchists, propagating an antiauthoritarian worldview and building consciousness amongst the people. In order for this theory to be effective, they have placed strategizing at a very high level of importance in their work. For instance, unlike many anarchist groups around the world, the FAG has mapped out a loose ten-year strategy for oppressed people that goes step by step over the years to a situation they would like to see. In their work within the popular social movements they do not try to impose anarchist ideology per se, instead they work together with them as equals while also maintaining a more radical position as well. The FAG do not think that they one day will be the saviors of the oppressed, rather they see themselves as only one part within a larger movement.
Another aspect of specifismo
is that it is opposed to any universalistic anarchist ideology
or doctrine that claims to be applicable to all peoples, in all
places, at all times. For instance, anarchosyndicalism is virtually
unknown in the Brazilian context today, because 70% of the population
are marginalized people who are employed in the informal sector.
Here there is really no boss to organize against. The majority
of Brazilians survive by selling cheap battteries, t-shirts or
burned CDs in the streets to whoever will buy them, and in this
way they are not really analogous to the classical concept of
the working class. For this reason, it is not really possible
to organize them in the syndicalist tradition, in industrial
unions. So, instead, they have to organize in other ways, ways
that are specific to the Brazilian situation.
This disillusionment amongst the population is primarily with "socialismo real" or reality socialism. This form of socialism uses Marxist-Leninist anti-capitalist rhetoric and symbolism, yet at the same time it makes many compromises with the elites. So when people start engaging in practical anarchist work, they make contacts with the membership of these organizations and easily find members who are becoming disillusioned with Marxism-Leninism. This is usually pretty easy since the best example of this is none other than the current President Cardoso. He is renowned around the world as an important Marxist philosopher of Dependency Theory, who emphasized the ways in which U.S. capitalist hegemony over Brazil had created a situation of national dependency that was keeping the country back from its full potential. This rhetoric made him very popular and contributed largely to his being elected. But then when he assumed power, he very quickly gave in and became a neoliberal like all the rest. This case illustrates the reality of "reality socialism." As a result of this trickery, the neoliberal government right now is very ideologically strong, much more than it had been before Cardoso. It focuses its doctrine largely on the marginalized majority, imposing its ideology of neoliberalism upon them even while claiming to fight against poverty and U.S. domination.
In order to understand how this form of socialism developed, it is important to consider the history of the left in Brazil, which is quite unique. As a result of the progressive statutes implemented by President Vargas in 1930, many people thought they didn't need to continue the social movements anymore. The anarchists of the time were not able to give a sufficient answer to these politics of cooptation of social movements and "corporatismo." And so when the repression began, and anarchists were killed and tortured, there was no one to stand up for them. The anarchists had been so focused on "the revolution" that they never answered the bread and butter issues that really mattered to the poor and exploited that they professed to be fighting for.Then, after the military took over, a long period of dictatorship set in, lasting until 1981. When the dictatorship finally fell, there were two possibilities for the country. Either start to begin a revolution to transform the country into a new noncapitalist social order, or organize political parties to get elected into office within the capitalist context. The Workers Party (PT) chose the latter, and this is where the Brazilian left is still at today. As a result, the PT has its hands in every major social movement in the country, including the other competing left-wing parties. However, there were those organizations that opposed this reformist strategy early on, including the major Brazilian union the CUT. The union vowed to organize separately from the PT so as to avoid their control and to maintain autonomy from the state regardless of what might happen. However, over time the PT gradually began to assume control over CUT, partially because Lula (Brazil's most well known leftist leader currently) was a founder of both the PT and the CUT. So when this control became more apparent, anarchists attempted to create a new union, the Central Workers Organization of Brazil (COB) to challenge the CUT. FAG members today often remark that this was a mistake since it left the CUT cleanly in the hands of the PT, with no internal opposition, while the COB was very easily marginalized into obscurity. As a result, any influence which anarchists could have had on the CUT was lost due to this. If anarchospecificismo had been the guiding viewpoint at the time, the CUT might not have become such a puppet of the PT and a militant caucus within may have gained the upper hand.
Which brings us to the present organization, and the question of how it related to other movements in the unique tradition of anarchospecifismo. When the FAG was formed in 1995, several other groups also formed in the same year, particularly in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This flurry of anarchist activity led to a discussion of creating some sort of a national anarchist organization. The general idea was that once 10 states within Brazil had formed anarchist organizations, then they would unite to form a national one. At that time there were only three states with organizations. So they waited a few years and tried to organize, but by 1997 there were still only four. So out of frustration, they decided to go ahead and form the Organizacion Socialista Libertaria (OSL) anyway, as a national organization for anarchospecificists. However when they tried to get together in order to work on nationwide projects the coordination simply fell apart. Part of the reason for this was that at the time they didn't have the internet, and the distance of travelling from city to city was so great that it ended up becoming a huge barrier. So instead of doing things together the various groups started to squabble amongst themselves rather than effectively working on the issues at hand. Then in 1999, the member organizations of the OSL decided to go ahead and dissolve the national infrastructure due to the persistence of these issues. Ironically, almost immediately after the organization was dissolved it suddenly became easier for all of the separate groups to work together. The source of the problems was largely this desperate attempt to bring together rather disparate groups under a common umbrella that didn't always fit all the organizations quite right.
Now, in 2002, the Brazilian anarchist groups are planning to build a nationwide organization once again, as anarchist groups are now present in a record high (in the post-1981 context) of eight states, and other people from other states are expressing interest as well. This means, at least potentially, that the groups could top 10 organizations within just a few months. So, the organizations are planning a nationwide meeting to occur in May in the northern region of Brazil, which is a three-day trip for those in the southern part of the country. By making the trip, the southern anarchists (who live in a far richer region of the country) are hoping to show those in the north that they are really serious. Rather than asking them to come all the way to the south on meager resources, this time those in the south are going to those in the north. Brazilian anarchist groups hope that this time will be different than the attempts to build the OSL in the past because they are doing things rather differently this time around. The three major differences this time are 1) they are planning to have one meeting each year 2) they will only allow in those who identify as anarchospecifists, and 3) they resolve to respect whatever other differences arise instead of trying to reach an overly broad consensus.
Other new developments that are occurring currently within the FAG include an attempt by the women and others to combat the machismo, homophobia and racism that sometimes arises within the Brazilian anarchist movement. There have been attempts in the past to organize organizations within the movement that are specifically for women, or specifically for queers or Afro-Brazilians but now some within these groups are questioning if that is really the best way to fight these problems. For instance in 1999 several women formed a group within the FAG called Mujeres Libertarias (known within the organization as ANITA). The name ANITA refers to a famous woman from the Gaucha region (where Porto Alegre is situated) who dressed like a man in the Brazilian Revolution. It was a strong organization amongst those who were involved, however it did not attract a large number of women and so the group stopped focusing on such issues. However, there is currently a movement to restart ANITA because in Rio Grande do Sul the cowboy "Gaucho" machismo culture is still very strong and even with radical circles it requires oppositional organization in order to balance it out. One major problem that keeps these issues from being resolved is that the members get so tied up in the issues that are outside of the anarchist context that they often do not have the time to deal properly with these issues. This question may in fact prove to be a critical new question of balance for the Brazilian anarchist movement, as the question of bread and butter issues vs. pie in the sky issues was for the first wave of primarily syndicalist organizing.
One thing that has really helped to build the anarchist movement in Brazil is the political space that has been opened up by the World Social Forum. This massive event has shifted the center of debate in the country much farther to the left than it had been, and thus some of those who were already on the "left" have moved on to become anarchists. However, this process has not been easy; at WSF2001 there was a good deal of trouble that arose between the anarchists and the WSF. The FAG thought that it was going to be an open forum, in which they could directly participate, but it turned out that it wasn't like that at all. When they arrived at the opening meetings, everything had already been decided by people high in the ranks of ATTAC and the Workers Party. They then tried to give the FAG merely administrative jobs with no decision-making power. So during the opening march of the forum this year, the FAG decided to break off with other anarchists since the official march was going specifically where there were no banks, no multinational corporations or anything like that. At first the CUT parade marshals tried to stop them from leaving by pushing them and keeping them in. So the FAG members went under their legs and broke through. Some of the MST members had met with them previously, planning to break off as well, but were unfortunately thwarted by MST parade marshals. However, when they finally did break off, they all threw eggs and stones at the banks and at McDonalds. Despite all the problems however, the FAG in general feels that it is better to come to the WSF, take part, and attempt to change it, and make it more radical than it is to simply not come at all. Also, it is a good way to get to know other social movements from all over the world, to meet each other face to face. But they also think that it is time to make a new kind of World Social Forum that is based directly on the grassroots movements and is not controlled by the political parties. Such is the tradition of anarchospecifismo.
So what can be learned from this exchange that might be useful for anarchists in the North? First of all, I think one thing we can see is that with a relatively small amount of effort we could really help out our anarchist brothers and sisters in the global South to be able to gain access to the means of production so that they can not only spread anarchist ideas, but also provide decent collective jobs for themselves in an economy that is 70% informal labor. For anarchists in the U.S. in particular, it should be remembered that the dollar goes much, much farther there, often two to three times as far. This also means that for those of us with the ability in the North, whether it is through college school loans, financial aid or institutional monies (as it was in my case) or for others who have access to family monies, we should be prepared to attend (and help those among us without resources to attend) international anarchist conferences in the South rather than expecting them to join us in the North. And for those of us with connections to non-profits or other groups that would have an interest in the World Social Forum we can use that as an excuse to attend both the WSF and any parallel anarchist conferences that might occur as well. For this, we should keep in mind that WSF2003 will also be in Porto Alegre, and that WSF2004 will be in India, which has an anarchist federation that could undoubtedly use some international support as well. With a little strategic planning and activity, we can increase the global connection of the anarchist community by using the wildly uneven structure of the global economy to our advantage. The elites have created a world economy in which Northern money goes much farther in the South; they probably never guessed that such a setup could backfire in such a way. And at the same time, if global anarchist / anti-globalization conferences are rooted in the South, this will help to spread antiauthoritarian views in the regions where it is really most relevant and likely to spread.
And as can be seen from this discussion, antiauthoritarian views really are spreading as people become more and more disillusioned with both "reality socialism" and "reality capitalism," the TINA formula served up in slightly different forms. In seven short years the anarchist movement has spread from three Brazilian states to eight, with over twenty organizations total. And at the same time, word is really getting out about the work of the BBI in providing direct mutual aid and information exchanges to anarchists in South America. An earlier delegation had already made contact with the anarchist movement in Bolivia, specifically Juventudes Libertarias (JL), and now the most recent delegation has made firm contacts with the anarchist movement in Brazil. A little anecdote highlights the extent of this development. One afternoon I went out to a delicious seafood lunch with members of SAC, CGT and two Bolivian anarchists from an anarchist collective in a different region of the country than JL. When I introduced myself, and handed them BBI and IWW pamphlets, they were surprised because they had been looking for me the past few days. They pointed excitedly into a small notebook with my name scribbled down next to the initials "BBI." Apparently some of the BBI folks back in NYC had contacted them by email and told them to be on the lookout. As I realized all of this I got a very warm feeling realizing that the connections between our movements were coming together more and more closely.
The tradition of specifismo might also be something for anarchists in the north to consider. For much of the history of anarchism a major debate has been (at least amongst those organizing the working class) do we work to form militant caucuses within the popular organizations, hoping to radicalize them and bring them over to our side, or do we form autonomous anarchist organizations and attempt to build those instead? But why have we in the North rarely considered that it doesn't have to be a situation of either / or, and that it really can be both. The fluidity and adaptability of specifismo to different social situations should be a lesson to us as well. What forms of organization are appropriate in an economy in which the service industry rules, and many people are only marginally employed? What forms of organization have we not tried yet that might be more relevant to people in the subjective situation of being homeless day-laborers, or youths stringing together financial aid and temporary jobs? Clearly this is a way of thinking that may be useful for us. What might we have to contribute to those in South?
If you would like to get involved in BBI, go on a self-organized outreach trip, or contribute funds, literature, skills or other forms of mutual aid to anarchist organizations around the world please contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. . If anyone would like to be part of a BBI delegation to Porto Alegre, Brazil in February 2003, it would be a good idea to start learning Portuguese now, or find someone who is fluent to go in your place or, even better, go along with you. And don't forget the importance of raising money to financially assist anarchist low-income people, women and people of color to attend as part of a Northern delegation as well. Organizing something like that would require a little more effort, but it is vital. For those of you online, the BBI website is located at http://blackbridge.freehosting.net
Donations and correspondence
with the FAG in particular can be sent directly to: