Arise Comrade Chekov
O’Connell Bridge, which connects Dublin’s Southside to its less affluent Northside, is as close as one can get to the very centre of the city. On this early evening, in February 1998, it is thronged with cars and pedestrians as usual. North of the bridge, 50 metres Westward along Bachelor’s quay, sits a pub called the Bachelor Inn.
It is a thoroughly unremarkable place – just another pub in a city full of pubs. I must have walked by it dozens of times without ever noticing it. The entrance is a door which faces towards the East, back towards the bridge. It gives onto a small hallway. Straight ahead is another door which opens onto a large bar area. To the right a stairway rises to a small landing, then turns back on itself and continues upwards to a wooden door. This door opens onto a small lounge area with large windows overlooking the river. The lounge has seen better days – the carpet is faded and worn, the décor is functional and old-fashioned – it can’t have been refurbished since the 1970’s. It is sparsely populated – three small groups of middle aged men, whose dress and demeanour suggest that they belong to the toiling classes, are huddling around pints of Guinness laid out on small round wooden tables. As I enter the room, approximately half of the men turn to look at me. I look around for a few seconds, hoping for a gesture of recognition or invitation from somebody, but, there are no fluctuations in the hostile indifference of the glances that greet me. I turn and retreat.
As I descend the stairs, a door opens on the small landing and a man, approximately 30 years old, emerges. I catch his eyes as he makes his way past me and he hesitates just long enough for me to summon the courage to address him. “I’m looking for, erm, an anarchist meeting?” He nods his head, smiles, says “yeah, yeah it’s in there”, points at the door from which he has just emerged and continues on his way up the stairs past me. I pause to compose myself for a second and open the door. Inside I find a room that is an embodiment of grimness. It is reasonably large with a single small grimy window near the door. A bare light-bulb dangling from the ceiling illuminates stained, yellowing walls. Threadbare worn-out bar-stools and plastic chairs are stacked around the walls. Seven people are sitting on benches and stools that are haphazardly arranged in a vaguely circular formation at the far end of the room. My arrival has obviously interrupted something. I give them a few seconds to turn their gazes onto me, the new arrival, before sheepishly introducing myself – “is this the WSM meeting? I’m Chekov, I was emailing Andrew”.
My introduction is greeted with friendly smiles and nods followed by an awkward silence. Eventually somebody advises me that, as they are in the process of agreeing an agenda, I should take a seat. I find a stool at the edge of the circle and, for the next two hours, I sit in that grim room listening to the eight Dublin members (the man who had left the room as I arrived soon returned) of the Workers Solidarity Movement conducting a meeting. I find the experience unsettling. The meeting is conducted according to formal procedural rules with which I am unfamiliar. Most of the content is about things – groups, events, campaigns - that I am similarly unfamiliar with. What makes the experience weird is the apparent tolerance of my presence – a complete stranger – at such an intimate meeting; a meeting at which I clearly did not belong or have anything to offer. I had anticipated that I would at least be asked to justify myself and have mentally prepared a heartfelt declaration of principle. I am deflated to discover that my presence is neither particularly interesting nor likely to be of much use to those present.
Overcoming far-left reluctance
When I left France in early 1997, I had told my friends in the Anarchist Federation that it was my intention to establish a new anarchist group in Ireland. They asked me why I wouldn’t just join the existing Irish anarchist organisation, the WSM. My objection was that the WSM was too “platformist”. This unusual ‘ism’ was used by the WSM to describe itself – it refers to a historical document called “the organisational platform of the libertarian communists” – commonly shortened to “the platform” - that was published by a group of Russian anarchists in exile in 1926. It set out a number of organisational principles, based on what they had learned in the course of their defeat and suppression by the Bolsheviks between 1917 and 1921.
My quibble with the WSM wasn’t down to any disagreements with the content of this document – it wasn’t until several years later that I actually read it and it is mostly just a statement of some fairly obvious organisational principles. To me, platformism represented the wing of the anarchist movement that was politically, culturally and organisationally closest to the traditional far-left and furthest from the counter-cultural world of squatting and youth rebellion. I hoped to establish some sort of political organisation that did not situate itself so comfortably within the unfashionable ghetto of the far left.
However, it did not take much time for me to abandon all plans of forming a new organisation. As soon as I started thinking about the problem I realised that I didn’t have the faintest idea as to how I should proceed. It is common to come across people who can quite clearly identify problems with the general political approach of the far left – the unpopularity of the brand, the arcane language, the unattractive stridency, and so on – as such problems are glaringly obvious from the outside. It is less common for people to offer any suggestions as to alternative approaches that might be more effective. When suggestions are offered, in my experience at least, they are almost always worthless as those offering them don’t understand the constraints under which politically marginal groups operate. The problem is that it's really, really, hard.
A very challenging problem
Building any type of new political organisation is very, very difficult. Most efforts end in total failure. In Ireland, there have been numerous attempts to establish new mass political organisations since the 1920s, some of which had a high profile and were well-funded. To date none have been successful – all the parties who hold more than a single seat in parliament today can be traced directly back to organisations founded before 1930.
Building a new political organisation is hard enough in the best of cases. Building a revolutionary anarchist organisation without any resources at all is a problem that is many times more difficult. When a political organisation is based on revolutionary anarchism it unambiguously cuts itself off from any and all support from the wealthy, powerful and influential. Figuring out any useful way in which one might advance such a project, when one is starting with no resources and no profile, is virtually impossible.
It’s hard to appreciate just how difficult it is to get anywhere with such a project without actually experiencing it. All doors are, by default, closed. “Hi, I’d like to book a room for a meeting” becomes a much more problematic sentence when it is followed by “it’s for an anarchist meeting”. There are no free niches that can be exploited. Wherever there is an opportunity to exercise political influence, communicate political ideas to an audience or even just to raise a political profile, the space is already occupied by multiple embedded competing actors. The tentacles of existing political formations reach into every committee, institution and trade union and extend all the way down to local community groups and residents associations.
Access to the mass communication channels of the media is especially fiercely contested between large numbers of interest groups and individuals. The revolutionary anarchist starts at the very end of a very long line of attention-seekers. When almost nobody understands what you are proposing and you have no means of communicating what you are actually proposing to the public, viable political strategies are difficult to devise.
Alongside my growing realisation of the difficulty of the problem that I was attempting to tackle, I became more familiar with the WSM. Initially, this contact was primarily through the Internet, where I worked with Andrew Flood on the A-Infos project, but within a few months, I had made personal contact with WSM members on numerous occasions. This personal contact gradually eroded my engrained reluctance to becoming a card-carrying member of a far left group. I had until now been politically isolated in Ireland: I didn’t know a single person in the real world who was particularly interested in political theory, never mind anarchist theory. My family was entirely unimpressed by my turn towards the far left: for the couple of years after coming out as an anarchist, every visit home would involve heated arguments and attempts to persuade me of the folly of my course. Meeting people who were interested in such matters was very welcome.
Andrew Flood, in particular, impressed me as he had, like me, an interest in both history and theory and he knew much more than me when it came to politics. He understood the dynamics and details of political movements far better than I did. Most importantly, he seemed to have a much clearer idea of how anarchism might gain political influence than I did. My personal encounters also revealed that the general weirdness of the WSM’s meetings and far-left image didn’t carry over into weird members. The organisation had exactly 9 members at the time – 2 women, 7 men, aged from their late 20s to their early 40s. Everybody had a job: teachers, clerical workers, technicians and so on. On a personal level, there was a bias towards the geekier end of the personality spectrum but not dramatically so. The members were reasonably varied in terms of background, interests and personality types and were, as a group, far more representative of the general population than anything I had come across in the counter-cultural world. Conversations about soccer and music mingled with the politics.
Based on the public face of far-left activity, one might easily imagine that the individual members would tend to be rather puritanical, preachy, po-faced and strident in person. In my experience, this is not borne out by reality. It is unusual for individuals to join and remain members of far-left groups unless they are motivated by strongly-felt principle. There simply aren’t many self-serving, non-idealistic reasons for doing such a thing. This is even more the case when it comes to far-left anarchist groups than the more common Bolshevik variety. For whereas Bolsheviks can earn status and rank within the party hierarchy and can dream of one-day becoming a great leader of the proletariat in the model of Lenin, anarchists are doggedly committed to eradicating all social hierarchies and are opposed to the very existence of positions which confer rank or elevated status. On a personal level this manifests itself as individuals who are on the extreme idealistic and altruistic end of the personality spectrum. A grouping of such individuals together radiates an overwhelming aura of decency and conveys an inclusive, accepting and supportive attitude towards the world. The determination and maintenance of status and position on a social pecking order is a significant aspect of most social groupings. Here competitiveness was almost entirely absent from interpersonal interactions. Everybody was genuinely committed to being nice to one another. This was a pleasant and refreshing surprise.
Taking the plunge
Another factor that helped to overcome my cultural antipathy to the far left was my increasing familiarity with the theoretical and strategic reasoning behind their activities. By understanding the basic model of social change that was prevalent on the far left, their behaviours and their motivations became comprehensible. Although I was far from being convinced that the general approach was likely to work, I was relieved to learn that there was at least an internally consistent logic to the behaviour and that was certainly better than anything I could offer.
In May 1998, I completed my undergraduate degree in computer science and, with the dotcom boom heating up, had been immediately offered a job in an Internet start-up company. This removed the final barrier to joining the far left. If I had to go out and preach about the workers, that was all very well, but I really didn't want to do it while I was a full-time student. That seemed far too close to a comic stereotype for comfort. Now that I was a worker, I could become a proper class warrior.
Thus, on a Tuesday night in June 1998, I once again attended a meeting of the WSM in the grim and dingy back-room of the Bachelor’s Inn. This time, upon arrival, I announced to the room that I wished to become a card-carrying member of the Workers Solidarity Movement. It turned out not to be as simple as that - there was a reasonably elaborate process that I had to go through before I was actually accepted as a full member - but I was henceforth committed to their cause.