Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 2 - No. 2 
Fall, 1998

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Political Protest and Cultural Revolution

Click here for Barbara Epstein: A Short Biography & Selected Works




The Need for Critique, the Need for Politics:
An Interview with Barbara Epstein

by Rebecca DeWitt

The nonviolent, anti-nuclear movements of the 1970’s and 80’s inspired thousands of people to radical, leftist political action with the vision of an ecologically balanced, egalitarian society.

Barbara Epstein, in her book Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, explores the successes and failures of these movements as a theorist and an activist participant, paying considerable attention to the role of anarchism. While the book focuses on two groups, the Clamshell Alliance of New England and the Abalone Alliance of California, Epstein has also worked to elaborate a broader radical critique and theory of social movements.(1) In particular, she has also written extensively on post-structuralism’s inadequacy for a radical politics.

I interviewed Epstein by e-mail in the summer of 1998. ~ Rebecca DeWitt

In Political Protest and Cultural Revolution you analyze the direct action movements of the 70’s and 80’s as a significant chapter in radical history. You state that it is important to engage a movement from the inside in order to truly understand the meaning of its actions. Why is this important?

I think that one always learns more about a movement by studying it from the inside. "Inside" can mean various things. Actual participation is best, but is not possible if one is studying a movement of the past or one from which one is excluded, or which one has no sympathy for, etc. But in all cases the more one can come to understand the inner logic of the movement, to be able to think the way people in that movement think or thought, the better one’s account is likely to be although one has to maintain some degree of distance, and the capacity for criticism. When I wrote this book I thought that the movement I was studying would be the beginning of a new surge of progressive movements. I was wrong. Instead we are in a period in which progressive movements are on the whole in decline. Under these circumstances I think it is especially important for those who study, teach or write about social movements to try to get inside their skins, so to speak. Otherwise the study of social movements is likely to become one more academic sub-field, of little help to the movements themselves, either in terms of the analysis that is made or in terms of the likelihood of students in the field themselves becoming involved in progressive social movements.

The cohesiveness of theory and praxis is an historical stumbling block for radical, utopian movements. The Abalone Alliance and the Clamshell Alliance, in many ways, collapsed over conflicts between political efficacy (leadership, strategy and decision-making processes) and principles. Did their utopian principles inhibit their ability to be politically effective?

I think that movements need utopian principles. The question is how a movement can sustain those principles and at the same time act effectively in the world, which often requires suspending one’s values to some degree. To give an obvious example, consensus process is sometimes too slow for decision-making, especially in a crisis. Working with more bureaucratic organizations often requires accepting their internal hierarchies. The question is always what can be compromised, and what cannot. Activists in the direct action movement too often failed to think about this, and tended to regard any compromise as unacceptable. I think this was one reason for the movement’s short life.

Since the 70’s and 80’s, feminism seems to have lost its radical edge. Do you feel that there has been a loss of radicalism and how do you think feminism can recapture its revolutionary role?

I agree that feminism has lost its radical edge. I think that this is partly one example of the decline in radical movements generally, and partly the result of so many feminists going into academia, where academic values tend to take over, even among those who are ostensibly radical. Any mass radical movement of the future will have to be feminist in the sense that women will have to make up at least 50% of its constituency and it will have to regard equality between women and men in all spheres of life as a major objective. Whether feminism will play the kind of radicalizing role in a movement of the future that it played in the direct action movement I do not know. It may be that some other question, or issue, will play that role instead. One of the problems of the radical feminism of the late 60’s and early 70’s was that it was based so much on the experience and outlook of a very homogeneous (and relatively privileged) group of women: young, college-educated and therefore mostly white, mostly middle to upper-middle class, living in a period of unprecedented prosperity. The fading of radical feminism partly has to do with the fact that that group of women has aged, and partly to do with the fact that conditions have changed. Young people now pay a much higher price if they try to live outside the system (whether capitalism or patriarchy or both). I think that a new radical feminism would have to be quite different, less age and class specific, more sensitive to the situations of working class women, poor women, women of color.

In terms of new problems we face today, such as global capitalism, which lacks a geographical center, how effective is direct action?

Unless, or until, there is some international crisis that mobilizes people around the world, I think that people have to go on organizing around specific local or national issues; usually such struggles lead to challenging global capital. The problem is that global capital is so strong that it is hard to win, and the problems are massive, affect huge numbers of people, but leave most people with a sense that nothing can be done. I think that a direct action movement could help by providing some focus and by showing that even if we can’t expect to win immediately, it’s better to protest than to acquiesce, better to be part of a community of resistance than a cog in a depersonalized system.

Every radical movement has its "revolutionary actors" (e.g. the working class or women). Under what conditions does a certain group become "revolutionary actors"?

I think that many groups can become revolutionary agents. A revolutionary movement, to be credible, requires the involvement or support of lots of people, people who are sufficiently oppressed by the system that they are not likely to leave the movement easily, and preferably representing significant parts of different social groups. It does not seem likely that the working class will mobilize as a group any time soon. There are too many divisions within it for unified action to be easy. There are also divisions among women. There are moments when different groups develop similar critiques and similar social goals, and ally with each other. In the US, in the 30’s, there was an unofficial alliance between workers and a large sector of intellectuals and other professionals; in the 60’s the student movement’s critique of the war in Vietnam resonated with broad sectors of the public (the student movement did not fully recognize that the agreement had to do with ending the war, not with embarking on a social revolution). In Paris in ‘68, large numbers of students and workers shared grievances against the government and a desire to transform the system. It seems to me that this kind of convergence is key to revolutionary moments - and it is almost impossible to guess when it is going to happen, or how long it will last.

You state that towards the end of the 70’s the New Left’s fascination with armed struggle (inspired by "Third World" political examples) was the downfall of the radical movement. However, some on the left continue to look to armed struggles for guidance. Is there any legitimacy for the left to continue looking in this direction for examples?

I don’t see armed struggle as an option for left movements in the US or Europe. Though Western democracies have severe limitations, they are still democracies, and to engage in armed struggle rather than in the political process is to discredit oneself and lose the possibility of building a mass movement. It also gives legitimacy to what the extreme right is doing, namely by-passing the democratic process. This is not to say that armed struggle isn’t legitimate, and important, under other circumstances, such as resistance to the Nazis, to right-wing militarist rule in Central America, etc. I think that it is important to study the history of movements that engaged in armed struggle, and to distinguish between situations that call for it and those that do not. I am not saying that recourse to armed struggle (or at least armed self-defense) is permanently out of the question in the West. The world is a volatile place these days, and who knows how things might change. But as things stand I think that notions of armed struggle, on the left, are foolish and irresponsible.

You point out the amazing number of people that were drawn to the utopian and predominately (although often not by name) anarchist principles of the direct action movements. What does this say about the importance of a committed ideology for a radical movement?

I don’t see how a movement can act, or present an alternative vision, without an ideology. Of course everyone has an ideology; those who think they don’t have absorbed the dominant ideology. Movements for social change have to have alternative ideologies, and the more explicit these are, the more thought is put into them, the better. Ideology consists partly of a conception of one’s goal - a social vision - and partly of an analysis of how and why existing society falls short of that vision, and how we might achieve the goals we have set. It is important to remember that analysis is only an approximation of reality, and needs to be constantly tested against reality and changed accordingly. Social visions also need to be looked at skeptically and revised as our ideas change. Ideologies are necessary but if they become rigid, they can be dangerous.

In your essay "Post-Structuralism as Subculture" you state (in criticism of post-structuralism) that if "alienation drops out of our vocabulary, we have no reason to protest current conditions and no basis for imagining anything better." Why is the concept of alienation especially important today?

I think that alienation has become so pervasive in contemporary society that it tends not to be recognized, even on the left; it’s as if alienation has become the air we breathe, and therefore invisible. In fact we are living in a society in which alienation is so deep, so widespread, that it has become very difficult to act. I’m referring to the commodification of virtually everything, the destruction of community and of human connections generally, the extension of the market into virtually all areas of life, the widespread loss of a sense of meaning, of values that go deeper than cash values. I find it extraordinary that under such circumstances a theoretical perspective in which there is no place for a conception of alienation could be considered radical. I think that the widespread acceptance of post-structuralism has greatly undermined the possibility of radical thinking and action. It seems to me that the concept of alienation gives us a place from which to criticize existing society. It allows us to say that human beings have inherent needs ( not only for food and shelter, but also for viable human relationships, for community, for the possibility of doing socially meaningful work), that contemporary capitalism makes the satisfaction of these needs virtually impossible, and that we want a society in which human beings can thrive. The concept of alienation seems to me key in making this argument: it provides a way of saying that contemporary society is utterly inadequate and that we need a better one.

For many post-structuralists, certain stylistic, literary strategies are celebrated as political or insurrectionary acts but you state that it often has more to do with performance than any attempt at dialogue or persuasion. To what degree is style relevant to radical politics?

I think that things like rhetoric, performance, and theatrical skills can be helpful in attracting an audience and getting a message across and especially in gaining the attention of the media. But one of the problems that the left faces today is a culture that is organized around performers and audiences rather than community and collective action. I think that the left, in attempting to accommodate itself to this culture, has wound up promoting it. Performers are not the same things as leaders; the relationship between performers and audience is mostly one-way, and the audience is relatively passive. Leaders, hopefully, are engaged in a common project with their constituencies; they are shaped by the movements that they represent, as well as helping to shape those movements. Leadership, especially charismatic leadership, has its dangers if one is trying to build an internally democratic movement. The performer/audience dynamic has even greater dangers; it tends to drive out the model that revolves around local organizing, equality among movement members, collective action, etc.

From your most recent writings, it appears that you believe that there are important political struggles taking place in the University. What role do you think the intellectual, university culture play in forming a radical politics?

I think that the left within the university could play an important part in forming a radical politics. In the 60’s there was a university left that played a very important role in the movements of the period, especially the anti-war movement. It was mostly a student left, though some faculty were involved. One of the problems with today’s academic left is that it is dominated by faculty, especially by prominent faculty in major research institutions, which gives a particularly academic cast to its concerns. Meanwhile conditions in academia are deteriorating, especially for those lower on the rung: students are being charged higher fees, graduate students are overworked and underpaid, many colleges and universities hire large numbers of part-time faculty whose working conditions and pay are not that much better than those of the graduate students. Junior faculty, at many universities, are forced to publish at a frantic pace to have any hope of gaining tenure. There is beginning to be some organizing around these issues. I hope that a university left will begin to emerge out of protests over student fees and the treatment of those who work in the university.

I get the sense from your work that being a part of a left inspired by anarchism, Marxism, and socialism, is equivalent to being a minority these days considering the mostly apolitical atmosphere surrounding intellectual work. How have you experienced this?

I feel quite isolated in the university, not because I have left opinions - many academics do - but because the academic left no longer has any sense of a political project. In the absence of a political project the values of mainstream academia rush in, and the academic left becomes increasingly competitive and alienated. Especially in the humanities there is a great deal of conflict within the academic left, much of it personal and petty. I don’t think that this strengthens anyone. I think that the academic left that revolves around literary theory and post-structuralism is exhausting its claims to radicalism. I hope that a more substantial university left will arise in its place.

A common theme in your work is the need to re-examine past radical movements and pose questions based upon this examination. Is there a point at which analyzing the past should become secondary to articulating a contemporary political program?

I think we have to do both at once. I’m afraid that there is no point at which we can stop examining the past, and our relation to it. Left movements often make the mistake of acting as if they were living twenty to thirty years earlier than they are. When the movements of the sixties turned toward a revolutionary perspective, many people’s conception of revolutionary politics had more to do with the 30’s than the 60’s. The student movement of the early 30’s opposed war; they were thinking of the world as it was at the time of World War One, not the world of Hitler and Mussolini. During the Gulf War many of us assumed that we were facing a re-run of the war in Vietnam (a protracted war). The only way to avoid such mistakes is to have a clear understanding of the past, the present, what remains the same, what is different, and what appropriate responses might be. But examining these issues should not stop us from organizing.

You are one among few self-consciously left ist theorists within academia. How have your political beliefs shaped your experience in the university?

There is a large sector of the university in which being in some way on the left is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. The problem is that within this sector, especially in the Humanities, deep-seated antagonisms have come to the surface. This would not be a bad thing if it were possible to discuss the intellectual differences that lie behind them. All too often attempts at discussion degenerate into veiled threats of ostracism, personal attacks, and so forth. Even before the current disagreements about post-structuralism came into the open, a subculture had taken hold in the academic left (especially in the Humanities, especially in elite universities) that promoted the worship of celebrities, in which one-upmanship tended to take the place of debate, in which competition was rampant and mostly went uncriticized. In other words, left and feminist values were mostly left behind, in terms of people’s behavior towards each other if not in their rhetoric. It is also true that the academic left has drifted further and further away from any engagement with political organizing or action. This is not the fault of individuals: it is the result of the weakening of progressive movements and of speed-up in the universities. But when rhetoric and actions become divorced from each other, there are bound to be severe problems. I think that the first step in remedying this would be to talk about these problems openly.

What does the future hold for your work?

I’m working on a book on what accounts for the decline of the left, in the US, over the last several decades. I’m using a number of case studies from the Bay Area, of arenas where the left once flourished but has faded. I hope that this pattern reverses itself, and movements of the left revive; even if this should happen soon, I think we need to look at the causes of the decline in recent decades. At the same time I’m working on a project that involves interviewing Jews who were members of the various ghetto underground movements and/or were anti-Nazi partisans. These people’s stories, and their understanding of the struggles that they were engaged in, need to be recorded while they are still alive.

1. The Clamshell Alliance formed in 1976 to protest the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant near Seabrook, New Hampshire. The Clamshell was based on anarchist principles, a small-group structure, consensus decision making, and large-scale civil disobedience. Though the Clamshell failed to stop the Seabrook plant, it paved the way for a mass movement based on nonviolent direct action with a vision of radical change. "Clamshell" refers to the clams along the seacoast that would have been destroyed by Seabrook.

The Abalone Alliance, more explicitly anarchist due to the influence of anarcha-feminists, formed on the West Coast in 1976 in response to Pacific Gas & Electric’s Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The Abalone was more successful than the Clamshell and succeeded in shutting down Diablo by using similar tactics. "Abalone" refers to the thousand of abalone (a saltwater snail) killed when Diablo’s cooling systems were first tested.