Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 3 - No. 2
Fall, 1999

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IAS Development: Principles and Structures
By Paul Glavin

In these tough times for radical politics, the Institute for Anarchist Studies (IAS) continues to have success.  We have a well organized counter-institution run by dedicated, principled anarchists; we have raised a good deal of money, which we have given as grants to more than a dozen radical writers, invested in our endowment, and used to publish this newsletter; and we continue to develop strong relationships with anarchists around the world. We are both happy with and amazed by the growth of the project since its founding in 1996.

We have also begun thinking about the IASís future and this spring formed a development committee to assess the IASís strengths, weaknesses, as well as where we would like the organization to go. This committee divided its concerns into three broad areas: grant priorities, board development, and finances. The three members of this committee met almost every week for five months and used their discussions to formulate a series of organizational proposals that were ultimately presented to and voted upon by the IAS board of directors.

The development committee discussions and proposals inspired the IAS board, resulting in changes in the IAS and a renewed sense of common mission. The following article presents some of the basic outlines of our discussions. I believe they are relevant not only to IAS supporters and allies but also anyone involved in creating and maintaining a counter-institution today.

Grant Priorities
Our most political and theoretical discussions occurred while reevaluating the IASís grant priorities. Up until now the IAS board has approached each round of applications on a case-by-case basis, guided by very general criteria such as the importance of a work to an anarchist critique of domination and the authorís financial circumstances. However, we felt a need and an obligation to be more specific about the types of work the IAS should support.

One of the first dilemmas we confronted was the distinction between scholarship about anarchism versus anarchist scholarship. Scholarship about anarchism, such as Paul Avrichís works, can illuminate important aspects of an otherwise neglected history while also proving inspiring or instructive. It is very common for us to receive applications for projects of this sort and certainly this type of literature plays an important role in maintaining a radical tradition.

However, we had to acknowledge that this historical work is, by definition, disengaged from contemporary circumstances and thus can make only limited contributions to an anarchist critique of the present society. We concluded that the IAS should try to prioritize works that contribute to an anarchist understanding of contemporary social conditions: that is, social structures, their historical trajectories, and opportunities for transforming these structures. Of course we would not advocate scholarship for its own sake, but rather works that contribute to the development of a vital anarchist theory and (ultimately) social movement. For example, an anarchist essay on the recent growth of the prison industry and its relationship to the globalization of capitalism seems more important now than an essay on Lucy Parsons and her connection to the Chicago anarchists of the 1880s. We also agreed that programmatic works should be a low priority for the IAS: we believe it is necessary to flesh out some of the more basic outlines of an anarchist critique and vision before getting too concrete about solutions.

Another important issue that we discussed is the need to expand our support to both groups and concerns that have typically received little attention within anarchism. For example, many critiques of patriarchy and white supremacy have been at least implicitly anarchist in their anti-authoritarianism and rejection of hierarchy. Clearly works such as these are integral to a broad project of anti-authoritarian social transformation. We also concluded that it is important to extend our support to those traditionally excluded by the dominant processes of intellectual production. Typically the most privileged groups or individuals - white, male, and academic Ė dominate anarchist and radical theory (this has been an issue for the IAS as well) and we believe the IAS should help challenge this. Although this is really nothing new in the wake of the so-called new social movements and in an era of multi-culturalism, it is essential to reaffirm in the context of the history of anarchism.

Board Development
The constitution and growth of the IAS board of directors Ė the group that awards grants and sets organizational policy - was another concern for the development committee.

One issue was the geographic location of board members, who are presently scattered up and down the East Coast and usually only meet together at bi-annual -and all too brief- board meetings. This circumstance is a consequence of an idea that has been normative for the IAS board since its inception: that is, that shared political and theoretical commitments are more important for the growth of the board than geographic proximity.

However, the development committee discussed the limitations of this model and concluded that we should try to increase the percentage of board members who live near one another, specifically in New York City. Although shared ideals are essential to any initiative, it is hard to sustain a common project when people are unable to meet on a regular basis. This problem is especially pressing at a time such as the present, when there are not radical social movements compelling people to gather at meetings, conferences, protests, and other activities that help override the impact of physical distance.

A more locally based board would help us nourish more personal and cultural bonds among board members. It would encourage a sense of community and give us something to draw upon for strength and sustenance as we face challenges in the course of building the IAS. We recognized that many groups on the left have failed, at least in part, because they have overlooked the importance of cultural connections and, more specifically, the value of friendship, trust, and genuine personal affinity.

A locally based board would also have  specific organizational benefits. First, it would help us develop a more collective approach to administrative work. The vast majority of this work has fallen on the General Directorís shoulders, which is both too much work for one person and also creates a potentially bad dynamic in which the General Director and the institutionís identity fuse, thus compromising democracy and participation within the organization. The presence of more board members in one area would make it easier to lessen the demands on the General Director and encourage democracy within the IAS. Second, by making it easier to meet, it would help the board have more thorough and detailed political discussions. Certainly in the course of our development committee meetings we found how much more could be talked through when several of us could gather on a regular basis.

In addition to increasing the number of board members in New York, we want to enhance the racial and cultural diversity of the board. We feel it is important that the board reflect our commitment to egalitarian cultural diversity and that the IAS draws upon the insights and experiences of those who have typically been excluded or marginalized. We also want to diversify the generational make-up of the board. Most of us are in our thirties now and we think it is important that the IAS is multigenerational, enabling the organization to benefit from younger as well older, more experienced individuals.  Also, as we develop more international contacts and receive applications for projects in various languages, there is an increased need for board members who are multi-lingual and knowledgeable about varying international circumstances.

Our financial discussions first centered on our desire to increase the size of our grant awards and finance other activities versus the need to put money in our endowment to ensure our long-term viability. Although larger grants would allow people the financial freedom to devote more time to writing and thus nourish radical consciousness in the near term, the development committee prioritized building up the endowment to ensure that we will be around for a long time. We felt that it would be more important to build the sort of organizational stability that a larger endowment can provide for the IAS (something that is so rare for radical groups) and focus on increasing our funding and expanding our activities when the organization is more financially grounded or when oppositional social movements again play a significant role in society.

Fundraising was another concern. Thus far the IAS has been sustained by generous contributions from generally poorer activists and a few, more wealthy individuals, but we need to find a way to raise more money. We discussed holding fund-raisers, sponsoring speaker series and perhaps selling merchandise. These types of activity can also contribute to a sense of community around the IAS and make a contribution to the local radical scene.  Ideally this will get more people involved, develop the IASís public presence, and spread anarchist ideas.

These are the types of issues we must wrestle with to build a radical organization like the IAS.  Our success will in large part come from the content of our principles, the people involved in the organization, and how we structure ourselves.  Also essential is an element of hope, a vision of the type of society we think could be, and a lot of dedication and persistence.  We also have to be willing to challenge dogma and orthodoxy, and have free and open debate and discussion about what we are doing and where we want to go.

We are encouraged by the IASís success thus far and certainly the need for fundamental social transformation is more pressing than ever. Working in the IAS in these politically down-times offers us the opportunity to reflect a lot, develop ideas, and carefully build the type of counter-institution we want.

The proposals advanced by the development committee were adopted in substance by the IAS board and have invigorated everyone involved, and helped the transition from the more immediate concerns of our founding period to longer term strategies. The results of this process have made important changes in our thinking and the structure of the organization and will continue to play themselves out over the next year. All this lays the groundwork for us to develop a very concrete and long-term plan for the IAS that will help guide us even farther into the future. The development of this plan will be our next step.

Paul Glavin is a member of the IAS board of directors and lives in Brooklyn, New York.