The History of BAAM (Chapter 1) Post-911 War Mongering and the Boston Anarchists Against Militarism

18 Dec

On September 24, 2001, less than two weeks after the September 11 attacks at the Pentagon and the collapse of three World Trade Towers in New York, this brief statement titled “No War Against Nations, No Peace Between Classes,” announced the formation of the Boston Anarchists Against Militarism:

“In response to the impending military aggression of the United States, a number of class struggle anarchists have come together to form the Boston Anarchists Against Militarism (BAAM!) coalition. BAAM is opposed to nationalism, racism, and war hysteria, and is organizing against the current war efforts.”

In this first incarnation BAAM was an open, ad hoc coalition of various anarchist groups and individuals. It was formed on the initiative of a few local collectives of the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (NEFAC) as a place where anarchists of various sub-ideologies could work together. NEFAC, which formed in 2000, had at least five collectives in Boston in 2001, including the Sophia Perovskaya collective and the Barricada collective.

Through BAAM, participating collectives and individuals coordinated their work of confronting the march of U.S. militarists through the beginning of the War on Terror. According to Jamey Vertigo, who joined BAAM a few weeks after September 11, “It certainly was a group of anarchists with a specific task, a preemptive attack against war before war began.”

Matt Carroll – who, joining before October 5, 2001, was the only person involved in BAAM for almost the entirety of its 9-year existence – says BAAM “formed in the wake of September 11, because, well, we all expected to wind up going to war.” Indeed, it was a time when millions of U.S. residents sat glued to their televisions, uncritically absorbing the onslaught of anti-Muslim, nationalist war propaganda. To the anarchists in Boston, says Vertigo, it seemed the U.S. would attack “anyone and everyone. I think it was obvious Afghanistan was the first target, and it seems like Iraq was just around the corner.” During this period of fear and rage, the BAAM coalition gathered anarchists together to formulate a revolutionary opposition to the impending wars.

On October 7, 2001, United States military forces with their British allies, invaded Afghanistan, launching “Operation Enduring Freedom.” On June 7, 2010, Afghanistan became the longest war in United States history. BAAM’s first demonstration came on September 20, 2001. The meeting before the first demonstration was quite tense, Vertigo remembers. “Someone said: ‘If some dude jumps out of the crowd and punches us, just take the blow and do not hit back.’ We all agreed, no fighting back. The mood of the country made us feel that we could easily get our asses kicked by jackass vigilantes while the cops allowed it to happen.” While the anarchists had been planning a march of their own, the Student Labor Action Project Anti-War Coalition planned a “Don’t Turn Tragedy into War” march, according to their call, as part of “a nationally coordinated day of anti-war campus action.” So, remembers Vertigo, “we joined forces; there were lots of BAAM students who were involved in that coalition.” Indeed, in the call for the march, the coalition listed its members as “individuals and groups from Boston College, Boston University, Emerson College, Harvard, MIT, Northeastern University, UMass Boston, Sabate Anarchist Collective, Barricada Collective, S.P. (Sophia Perovskaya) Collective,” the final three being collectives of the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists.

The September 20 demonstration was among the first protests against the Afghanistan war. Meeting in Copley Square, anarchists marched as a contingent. They carried black flags and banners, including one that read “Solidarity with Revolutionary Afghan Women,” taking over Boylston Street and then Massachusetts Avenue on the way to the anti-war demonstration in Harvard Square. There, remembers Vertigo, “I feel like our march doubled the crowd.” Though a heavy police force followed them the entire way, the violence against protesters the anarchists expected never happened.

In fact, according to Vertigo, the burgeoning anti-war movement was quite diverse and lively, with many rallies and marches in the months that followed. BAAM played an important part. Due to the momentum and influence anarchists held at the time, only two years after the successful World Trade Organization protests in Seattle (1999), Vertigo remembers, “It seemed at first that anarchist critiques were relevant to a broad array of society, and I do honestly feel that many people looked to BAAM as leaders in the anti-war movement.”

On October 2, 2001, less than one month after the September 11 bombings and at the height of the ultra-patriotic wave of violent and fearful jingoism, in a statement posted to anarchist websites titled “Basis of Unity,” the Boston Anarchists Against Militarism defined themselves as “a coalition of social anarchists committed to building an anti-war resistance movement in the greater Boston area.” The statement outlined six points, calling for an end to the “root causes of war: capitalism, the State, and all forms of exploitation and oppression,” rejecting “nationalism, patriotism, racism, and all forms of chauvinism and bigotry used to mislead the working class into identifying with, and reinforcing, the interests of the ruling class,” promoting “anti-racism and internationalist working class solidarity as our strongest weapon against the global ruling classes and their wars,” stating “there can be no peace without justice,” and encouraging “a diversity of tactics…the development of autonomous and creative forms of struggle in the growing anti-war movement, ranging from public education campaigns to direct action.” The Basis of Unity document was also released in the October 2001 edition of the Barricada publication.

On November 1, 2001, BAAM released another statement: “Why Anarchists Oppose Militarism and Nationalism,” defining themselves as anarchists, dispelling the myth that anarchists are terrorists or in any way supportive of the September 11 attacks, identifying the ruling class as the cause, benefactor, and aggressor of war (in particular, “the oil barons and arms dealers who helped shape the Middle East as it is today”), and differentiating between wars of capital, and wars for liberation. The statement ends with a slight variation on the title of BAAM’s original statement, and one that would soon be found on banners and signs, and heard in chants and songs: “No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes!” Beyond the student and anti-war movement, BAAM was also active within the local subcultures, particularly the punk scene. There was a benefit show for BAAM on November 4, 2001 at Spontaneous Celebrations in Jamaica Plain. Four punk bands – the Spitzz, the Profits, Leon Czolgosz, and Guardia Negra – performed.

Boston Anarchists Against Militarism published another statement, titled: “Why Anarchists Oppose War and Nationalism,” in the third issue of the Northeastern Anarchist, the magazine of the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (dated Fall/Winter 2001). The statement begins with the question, “So, what exactly is an anarchist?” followed by a loose definition, locating BAAM within the tradition as “anarchists of the social/communal school.” Then, the authors state, “Anarchists believe SOME wars may be justified…However…most wars are fought by the ruling elites of nations for their own economic and political interests, without regard for the interests of the civilians on either side.” Addressing the assumption that U.S. troops fight for freedom, the statement argues “mostly the American military has been used to fight against the freedom of other people around the world (and thereby ensuring American wealth, also known as American freedom)…The freedoms that exist in America were fought for and won, rather, by ordinary people. Starting from the Bill of Rights, which would not have been included in the Constitution (they’re amendments!) if popular outcry had not necessitated it.” Lastly, the statement confronts President Bush’s challenge, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us!” by challenging the concept of nationalism and defining BAAM as internationalist, proclaiming, “We choose to side, rather, with the victims of both of these (U.S. and Afghan) regimes.” This statement was also distributed as a leaflet through the years that followed.

As the anti-war movement developed, the BAAM coalition began to see how anarchist perspectives on the war were fundamentally different from those of their liberal and socialist allies. To help define and popularize anarchist anti-war positions, on November 10, 2001, from noon until seven, BAAM hosted an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, titled: “Anti-War Teach-In: An Anarchist Perspective.” The schedule, as advertised in a November 7 posting on an MIT website, was as follows: Why Anarchists Oppose War (BAAM); Radical Art Workshop; Radical Labor’s Response (with Jon Bekken of the IWW); Voices from the Afghan Community; Diversity of Tactics in Anti-War Activism; Implications for Immigrants (Paromita Shah, National Lawyers Guild); State Repression in Wartime; Anarchist Response to Terrorism (Cindy Milstein, Institute for Social Ecology); Anarchism & Collective Organizing (Sabate Anarchist Collective, NEFAC); Patriarchy & War; and Anarchism, Nationalism, & Patriotism.

BAAM’s early success in presenting its ideas meant that the demonstrations it planned were attended by many people, including City Councilors. Vertigo remembers, “I felt other cities really were looking to our actions. I remember being almost amazed, because I felt we were not as big

as people from other cities thought we were. People were coming up from Providence and New York City to see what BAAM was doing. People around the country were emailing us for info. For years afterward I would find anarchist publications in East Europe and South America and see pictures of

BAAM demonstrations (people loved the No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes banner).” According to Vertigo, BAAM demonstrations were even large enough to compete with the big leftist and liberal coalitions for marching permits and numbers of participants.

Various socialist factions began sending people to anarchist workshops and presentations, attempting to disrupt the meetings or to try and push their party line. Relations with anti-war allies – first with sectarian socialists, with whom “less than comradely words” were exchanged, says Vertigo, and then with the coalitions of liberals – soured quickly.

As anarchist positions and thought developed, and the political differences between anarchists and their allies widened, BAAM’s own internal debates sharpened. “There began to be philosophical differences between anarcho-communists. Pretty much everyone at the time identified to one degree or another as anarcho-communists,” remembers Vertigo.

The disagreements developed around the Organizational Platform of the Libertarian Communists, written in 1926 by the Dielo Truda (Workers’ Cause) group. Exiles of the Russian Civil War living in Paris, the Dielo Trudo group proposed the document, which became known as “the platform,” based on their experiences in the crushing defeat of the Russian and Ukrainian revolutions of the previous decade. Since then and to this day, some anarchists like NEFAC have agreed with this concept and work in politically-specific local and international federations and confederations based around the platform. Others consider the platform dogmatic and too narrow, favoring a “synthesis” model of organizing, often on very loose ideological principles, or opposing formal organization all together.

Indeed, it was above all the lack of organization which the exiles blamed for the impotence of anarchist movements and the failure of the revolutions. Nestor Makhno, a peasant-turned military and theoretical leader of the Ukrainain revolution, begins his introduction to the platform with, “It is very significant that, in spite of the strength and incontestably positive character of libertarian ideas, and in spite of the forthrightness and integrity of anarchist positions in the facing up to the social revolution, and finally the heroism and innumerable sacrifices borne by the anarchists in the struggle for libertarian communism, the anarchist movement remains weak…a small event, an episode, and not an important factor….The miserable state in which the anarchist movement vegetates…can only be described as ‘chronic general disorganisation.’” And at the heart of that disorganization, he argues, are “defects of theory: notably from a false interpretation of the principle of individuality in anarchism: this theory being too often confused with the absence of all responsibility.” To counter the disorganization and lack of responsibility of individual anarchists to the collective movement, the Dielo Truda group proposed a specifically anarchist-communist organization based around four principles: Theoretical Unity, Tactical Unity or Collective Method of Action, Collective Responsibility, and Federalism.

Militants of such an organization, the exiles argued, must participate whole-heartedly in the struggles of the working class and other oppressed peoples in the less-unified mass organizations because “The birth, the blossoming, and the realisation of anarchist ideas have their roots in the life and the struggle of the working masses and are inseparably bound to their fate.” To strive for such a revolution, they argued, “it is necessary to work in two directions: on the one hand towards the selection and grouping of revolutionary worker and peasant forces on a libertarian communist theoretical basis (a specifically libertarian communist organisation); on the other, towards regrouping revolutionary workers and peasants on an economic base of production and consumption.”

Therein lies another common debate between platformist and some anti-platform anarchists: namely the participation of anarchists in organizations and movements that in the short term may be reformist and are never as ideologically pure as the standards many anarchists hold. To work within the class for the sake of building mass movements means to work with people from all backgrounds and belief systems. Regardless, it is the belief of the platformists that the role of anarchists is to help the masses build their movements and find their strength in the small victories, while trying to inject anarchist ideas by developing relationships and leading by example. This is an essential project because, the Dielo Trudo group writes, “The labouring masses have inherent creative and constructive possibilities which are enormous, and anarchists aspire to suppress the obstacles impeding the manifestation of these possibilities.”

Boston in 2002 was not the first time anarchists debated the platform. Soon after its publication, anarchists across the world raised harsh and passionate criticisms. We will not get into the arguments of the anti-organizationalists, whose ideas never have and never will be influential among a mass movement of people (which is fundamentally necessary for the creation of any meaningful societal change). However, among the most respected and influential of the anarchist-communists to come out in opposition to the platform was the long-time Italian militant and thinker Errico Malatesta.

Though at the time Malatesta was living under house arrest in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, he was able to release a series of letters, the first in 1927 called “A Project of Anarchist Organisation.” Malatesta believed that while “The intentions of the comrades are excellent…Instead of arousing in anarchists a greater desire for organisation, it seems deliberately designed to reinforce the prejudice of those comrades who believe that to organise means to submit to leaders and belong to an authoritarian, centralising body that suffocates any attempt at free initiative.” In his first letter, Malatesta went so far as to call the proposed organization “a government and a church.” Malatesta says he understands the exiles’ motives. “Those comrades are obsessed with the success of the Bolsheviks in their country and…would like to gather the anarchists together in a sort of disciplined army which, under the ideological and practical direction of a few leaders…perhaps it is true that…our material effectiveness would be greater. But with what results? Would what happened to socialism and communism in Russia not happen to anarchism?”

Malatesta instead argues for a broader type of organization, one that we would today call synthesist, that would unite anarchists along very basic points of agreement as opposed to striving for the tactical and theoretical unity envisioned by the exiles. “In my view,” he writes, “an anarchist organisation must be founded on a very different basis from the one proposed by those Russian comrades. Full autonomy, full independence and therefore full responsibility of individuals and groups; free accord between those who believe it useful to unite in cooperating for a common aim; moral duty to see through commitments undertaken and to do nothing that would contradict the accepted programme.”

In 1928, Makhno penned a reply to Malatesta. In a letter called “About the ‘Platform,’” Makhno writes, “My impression is that either you have misunderstood the project for the Platform or your refusal to recognise collective responsibility in revolutionary action and the directional function that the anarchist forces must take up, stems from a deep conviction about anarchism that leads you to disregard that principle of responsibility…” Makhno posed a series of questions to try and understand Malatesta’s position. “Your reply, dear Malatesta,” he wrote, “would be of great importance to me for two reasons. It would allow me better to understand your way of seeing things as regards the questions of organising the anarchist forces and the movement in general. And – let us be frank – your opinion is immediately accepted by most anarchists and sympathisers without any discussion…It therefore depends to a certain extent on your attitude whether a full study of the urgent questions which this epoch poses to our movement will be undertaken, and therefore whether its development will be slowed down or take a new leap forward.”

Some of Makhno and Malatesta’s disagreements, it seems, can be attributed to confusion. It is important to note that, in addition to the censorship Malatesta faced under house arrest, the two anarchists spoke and wrote in different languages and were forced to rely on translations. In his reply in 1929, Malatesta says, “If we could correspond freely, I would ask you, before entering into the discussion, to clarify your views which, perhaps owing to an imperfect translation of the Russian into French, seem to me to be in part somewhat obscure.” However, the situation would not allow for that. “For my part,” Malatesta continues, “I wonder what that notion of collective responsibility can ever mean from the lips of an anarchist….how can people who fight for liberty and justice talk of collective responsibility when they can only be concerned with moral responsibility, whether or not material sanctions follow?!!!…Perhaps, speaking of collective responsibility, you mean precisely that accord and solidarity that must exist among the members of an association. And if that is so, your expression amounts, in my view, to an incorrect use of language, but basically it would only be an unimportant question of wording and agreement would soon be reached.” While there is clearly a lack of mutual understanding of the term “collective responsibility,” in this letter Malatesta seems to find some common ground with the exiles. “I believe that we, anarchists, convinced of the validity of our programme, must strive to acquire overwhelming influence in order to draw the movement towards the realisation of our ideals. But such influence must be won by doing more and better than others, and will only be useful if won in that way….Is this what you too mean by the part the anarchists should take in the preparation and carrying out of the revolution? From what I know of you and your work I am inclined to believe that you do.”

Malatesta’s sharpest criticism of the platform was the proposed executive committee. Maletesta brought this point up in each of the letters he penned to Makhno, and while Makhno states in his final letter to Malatesta, “As any anarchist, I reject authority in general, I am an adversary of all organization based on centralism,” he never fully addresses to the topic of an executive committee. In practice platformist groups, or at least NEFAC, do hold elected, recallable, and rotating offices set to carry out the directives of the organization and handle certain roles. There are secretaries, treasurers, and a council of delegates who collect and represent the votes and opinions of their local organizations in discussions on the federal level. This is how it is spelled out within the exiles’ platform: “The executive committee…will be in charge of the following functions: the execution of decisions taken by the Union with which it is entrusted; the theoretical and organisational orientation of the activity of isolated organisations consistent with the theoretical positions and the general tactical line of the Union; the monitoring of the general state of the movement; the maintenance of working and organisational links between all the organisations in the Union; and with other organisations. The rights, responsibilities and practical tasks of the executive committee are fixed by the congress of the Union.” If this is what the Dielo Truda group meant by an executive committee, perhaps Malatesta took the same term to mean an official vanguard of the kind common in authoritarian political parties, or believed such roles of responsibility to be subject to corruption or evolution into authoritative positions, rather than often thankless and tedious tasks that allow for a smooth and consistent functioning of a large organization.

Regardless of flaws, debates, and issues, one of the main misunderstandings by anti-platformists today is the idea that the platform is a final, set in stone doctrine to be dogmatically followed like the words of some party demigod or deity. The intentions of the Dielo Truda group were not to create such a lifeless document for anarchists to blindly follow, but to start a conversation and, more importantly an organization, that could find its theoretical and tactical unity and later flesh out such a program to suit its needs and aims, or as Makhno concluded his introduction to the document: “The Organisational Platform published below represents the outlines, the skeleton of such a programme. It must serve as the first step towards rallying libertarian forces into a single, active revolutionary collective capable of struggle: the General Union of Anarchists.” Ironically, it was those anarchists who would soon form the core of a new and separate BAAM that would call their organization, formed largely in reaction to platformism, “the General Union of Boston Anarchists.” For the time being, however, BAAM remained a coalition of various anarchist tendencies.

According to Nato, an early NEFAC and BAAM member, and as we have seen from the correspondence between Malatesta and Makhno whose opinions can be taken to represent two popular currents within anarchist-communism, “Those fractures were there before BAAM. In fact, NEFAC was formed in many ways specifically because of them, because we had all been active in synthesist organizations for years and had come to the practical, tactical, strategic, and political conclusion that they were more or less worthless. So that fracture was old news. We started BAAM as a way to connect with other folks, non-NEFAC folks, knowing full well that most of them were synthesist. We went into it knowing that, for the purpose of building a broader coalition (and to work with some folks we liked a lot but didn’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with politically)…More accurately,” Nato adds, the fractures in BAAM “came from a small handful of controlling personalities.”

These personalities would eventually tear BAAM apart and create a strong divide between BAAM and NEFAC. However, at the time, a disagreement about the structure of BAAM gave fuel to the personal and political debates. Some of the individual participants of BAAM pushed to solidify the coalition as its own open and non-platformist anarchist group. According to BAAM member Frank Little, “They had gathered together all these anarchists from around the area, but then they—and by they, I actually mean mostly Barricada—started to get worried about their own creation; people like myself wanted it to be an organization in and of itself.” As Nato puts it, “NEFAC folks had an organization of our own…that was strong and large (comparatively in the anarchist movement). So we didn’t look at BAAM as our ‘home’ organization, but simply as a coalition we were involved in. The new folks to BAAM, they hadn’t formed their own organizations, and after we formed BAAM they came to look at that organization as ‘home.’ That was likely the most marked difference in perspective that caused the shift from B.A.A.M to BAAM!” (See next section.)

While some NEFAC members within BAAM may have opposed this shift as Frank contests, others, like Nato and the Sophia Perovskaya Collective, did not. “In many ways,” says Nato, the shift was “a good thing. As a staunch supporter of Ericco Malatesta’s definition of anarchism, ‘Organization, organization, and organization!’ it was thrilling that folks without any got some.” However, for many participants of the coalition, the debate over the political nature and future of BAAM had just begun.

 

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