This is the story of how I became an anarchist. I believe it to be fairly typical, though I could be wrong. Ultimately, these are merely my own, personal experiences — and, as such, these writings should not be taken as more or less than that. Dearest thanks and apologies to Miss Cleyre, as this essay follows in the footsteps of her own The Making of an Anarchist, though over a century later.
Additionally, I should note that this is something of an emergency response to William Gillis’s views on the current crop of anarchists, those radicalized in 2015 and later. I don’t doubt Mr. Gillis’s accounts of the past. How could I? There aren’t a lot of people around to contradict him, after all. We burn out quickly. Anarchists generally either get jailed, get killed, or give up in despair and frustration. Gillis hasn’t done that. He was raised by radicals, ran away at 13 to fight in the Battle of Seattle, and has kept up his work in the world for more than three decades. That’s nothing to sneer at, and he is a great treasure and resource for modern anarchy.
That being said, there are two things that I have a different perspective on than him. They are: the new antifascism and internet radicalization. I will give my take on the first now, and then explain my take on the second after. I will do this because the first can be explained easily, simply by telling the events as they occurred, in the order that they occurred, starting with the start — while the second requires a retrospective.
Gillis, not to be funny, liked antifascism before it was cool. Before 2015, it seems many leftists thought of antifascists as boring janitors. Gillis refuses to call himself an antifascist because he sees that as a title to be earned through struggle. I respect that position and don’t entirely disagree. However: I became an anarchist because of black-clad antifascists on the news. It wasn’t because of local activists. It wasn’t because of clever essays or well-researched world-changing books. It was because of people punching nazis. These are simple reasons to join a cause, but they’re simple reasons that will fill most anarchists with rage. Before 2015, I didn’t know that anarchism was a thing. I read any references to anarchists or anarchism as either a non-literal insult or a reference to anarcho-capitalism, because that was the only sort of anarchism I had ever been exposed to. If someone had handed me a clever essay or well-researched book, I wouldn’t have read it — any more than you are going to read an essay or book on how the jews did 9/11 or how ancient aliens killed Kennedy. I regarded radical political philosophies as being that level of insane, and that level of uninteresting. Local activists were even more off-putting, given their focus on identity politics and being studiously and unnecessarily weird. It also seemed that they were mostly interested in telling me that I’m a bad person for being white and male. Which, even if it were true, isn’t exactly a great sell for recruitment.
This all changed in 2015, with nazis in the streets and the news telling me that “black-clad anarchists” were fighting them. The news, strangely, thought that the people fighting the nazis were bad. I knew that this couldn’t be right. Years of popular media of every sort had taught me a simple fact: nazis are always the bad guys. Unlike a lot of other things that the media taught me, this has turned out to actually be a pretty solid message. And, being of Jewish descent, I felt that I had something of a personal interest in the outcome of the struggle.
I went online and searched for anarchism and antifascism.
I found r/anarchism, and a series of discord groups. They told me the basics, though I recommend that anyone and everyone stay away from either. Both are toxic cesspools which I feel have revealed to me the darker nature of humanity. In any case, I declared myself (rather quickly) to be an anarcho-communist, because that was what all of the people who wanted to fight nazis called themselves. I eventually encountered mutualists, though, and found myself arguing with them often. They all seemed rather smart in non-economic areas, but I didn’t understand their views on economics. I thought that they were nonsensical. Eventually, slowly, I came to understand. Minoring in economics at college (where I was during this) certainly helped. I declared myself to be a mutualist, and abjured anarcho-communism.
Soon, though, summer was upon me. Summer meant the end of the school year at college. It meant me going home, to Portland. More notably, though, summer meant the beginning of another high tide of neo-fascist activity — and, with it, another massive antifascist attempt to push back that tide.
I was itching to join up with the antifascists, though I hadn’t the slightest idea how I might do so. I busied myself with a summer job, and waited for something to happen — or, perhaps, for myself to have some sort of grand insight into the whole situation, one that would put me into contact with the antifascists. As it happened, both occurred. The former happened first, though. Jeremy Christian killed Ricky John Best and Taliesin Namkai-Meche, and put Micah Fletcher in the hospital for a month. About a week later, Patriot Prayer had another rally. Three thousand people showed up to counter them. We all gathered in Chapman Park, to stand guard over the horror in our midst.
There was a line of police in the street and, across the street: Them. They flew their flags. They hung them from trees and waved them in the summer breeze. They held them between each other and they wore them on their clothing. I knew them all. I had seen them online. I don’t think I will ever forget the vexillology of hate. The flag of the Thin Blue Line was there. It was gripped between two camo-clad rally-goers, as close to the police as the police would let them be. The Kekistani flag was there as well. It was like the nazi battle flag, but with the red replaced with green and the swastika replaced with an E surrounded on all sides by Ks facing out. It is a beloved symbol of the 4chan set, as it had that perfect mixture of intense racism and very slight deniability. Five feet long and three feet wide, it waved in the breeze like a bad dream. Others were more traditional. The rune insignia of the American National Socialist party was held up above the crowd. The confederate flag. The american flag. Half the confederate flag with half of the american. The gold-and-black of the “anarcho”-capitalists. My mouth hung agape and my heart wouldn’t beat. I felt like I was looking at the future and the future looked an awful lot like the worst of the past.
The horror of nazis marching in your hometown is greater than just “Nazis!”. It’s knowing that spaces that you identify with don’t actually belong to you in any concrete way. They aren’t magically safe just because of familiarity. Psychological horror is about your mind betraying you. Body horror is about your body betraying you. Cosmic horror is about God betraying you. Nazi horror is about your home betraying you.
There were good parts of the experience, though. Most of the experience was just waiting. Four hours of waiting. Even next to that horror, people found each other in the boredom and talked. I met up with some college boys who gave me a shield and engaged with me in some drills. Someone handed out free ice-cream. Someone had dressed the pioneer statues up with black and red bandanas and black and red flags. It was the first time that I had gotten to talk with a great mass of other radicals.
It wasn’t all waiting, though. I saw some action. It was fantastic, though I shan’t be saying more about it here. That counter-protest got kettled at the end. I wasn’t there for that. I left barely 15 minutes before that because I’d been watching the police redo their formations for another 15 minutes before that. I’d gotten my hits in already, after all. They said on the news, later, that someone had thrown something; as though that worked as a proportionate response, even if it were true.
Though it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, the big difference between this experience punching nazis and more conventional forms of activism was that there didn’t appear to be any meetings. There were no purity tests. There wasn’t a massive time commitment, or the requirement to be friends with a bunch of overly earnest hipsters with unfathomably twee personal views. When someone at an antifascist rally decides to start ranting at me about the need for “balance between the sacred masculine and sacred feminine,” I don’t stand there and awkwardly listen to them be crazy at me. I just walk away. Of course, if you want to get serious about punching nazis, it becomes nothing but meetings and training and forming weird cliques where you have to bow to idiots with lots of social capital. But at the lower level, the level that almost everyone starts at, that just isn’t a thing. You show up, you make your own decisions, you bring your own equipment, and you hold your own beliefs.
This sort of radicalization could never be performed in the careful and measured way that Gillis is nostalgic for, where a small group of local activists would involve recruits in their daily practices and let them learn through doing. Gillis brought this up in a recent twitter thread. To summarize, his fear is that internet radicalization has brought a number of horrible, previously fringe, marxist ideas into the mainstream of anarchism. I think that this is true for the internet left, sure. But people involved in actual anarchism tend to be less dogmatically ideological and to have better ideas. They tend to be less opposed to markets, less interested in working with tankies, less interested in pseudo-vanguardism, less interested in “left”-nationalism.
The old way of doing things that Gillis promotes certainly avoids these excesses of authoritarianism, nationalism, and marxism as well. But it could never have created crowds of thousands or a new, mass movement. Mass movements in the streets are composed of everyday people who are standing up for themselves. Everyday people are not going to have read all of the same theory that you, personally, like. Crowds of supposed radicals online are composed of everyday people, except they’re not even necessarily willing to go out into the streets. They’re just willing to sit there, talking, online. When they go out into the streets, they start to maybe matter. And when the people in the streets start to stick around and form or join institutions, they definitely matter. So: don’t worry about the internet left. They’ll sort themselves out or go away.
Internet radicalization is simply not that big of an issue. It remains on the internet to a much greater degree than one might imagine. The people actually doing things have to learn from what they are doing and how things actually work. Having to actually put your ideas into practice always pushes you towards pragmatism, and pragmatism looks a lot more like me than it does BadMouse or some random edgy anarchist on a discord server. The internet is the realm of ideas, but the world is the realm of actions.
It was after this first experience with antifascism that I joined a formal collective. It was as simple as someone (yes, someone online) telling me that infoshops were a thing and that Portland had one. The one I went to was called “the Anarres” after the planet in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. While there, I listened to a truly terrible punk show, ingratiated myself with people by sharing out my best friend’s girlfriend’s weed (at the time she was dating a weed farmer), and made contact with the people doing door security. I acted ridiculously, but they were quite willing to agree to recruit me. That summer was a truly incredible one, and I wish I could share literally any of the details of it without incriminating most of the people involved and probably pissing off any number of others.
That collective ended as some inevitably do: in tears and recriminations. One of the people involved decided that it was their project and tried to add their trotskyist friend without any discussion or vote, right in front of all of us. Another guy and I objected, and I left. I was told that I wasn’t allowed to do that, because, actually, I was fired. I pointed out that firing me sort-of supported my underlying point. I would later find out from one of my friends that I retain from this experience that our would-be king had relapsed on their heroin addiction. My friend treats this as explaining the whole thing, but I don’t really understand. My friend tells me that I would if I was a former heroin addict like him and our would-be king.
While this all might sound like a disaster, we accomplished a lot before this happened, and I had to go back to college anyways. Through doing this, as though doing antifascism on my own, I learned. What I learned from that, in particular, is that centralization of power often takes the form of centralization of information. I also learned that just putting together ostensibly well-intentioned anarchists does not necessarily mean that you will do anarchy. Saying that you have no leaders does not make it so. Power must be fought, even power held by those who have declared it to be their intention to fight power. These are things that internet leftism ignores, and that are impossible to ignore for too long in the real world. It’s all different out there in the streets.
You become an anarchist in the streets, with your fists (to paraphrase a bizarre TV show) and nothing else matters. Well, not only with your fists. But certainly, that fact that you do do something is the most important part. You become an anarchist through the act of doing things. Anarchism is a practice, not just a theory. For the most part, it cannot exist as an internet-only thing. It exists where we gather together and defend each other. It exists where we assert ourselves, our power, and our freedom. It exists there and nowhere else. Anarchism is not a matter of the right words, or the right thoughts. It is not something that you can find in a book, it is not something that you can find in a youtube video, and it is not something that the internet can really pervert.
Anarchism is a way of acting, of being. This way is a natural way and a manifestation of a set of natural human impulses. It is impossible to pervert anarchism by perverting the theory of it because anarchism is not the theory. Anarchism is the action. The theory is helpful, yes, of course. After all, am I not trying to be a theorist? And do I not say that I am a certain sort of anarchist — a mutualist, rather than an anarcho-communist? The theory is important, because the theory guides the action.
This essay should not be read as a call to retreat from the internet, to avoid making youtube channels and essays and thinking and discussing. You should absolutely do all of those things, and we will probably lose if we don’t make sure that there are good resources to find videos, media, essays, books, discussions, advice, etc. But I am saying that these are not the most important thing. Theory only matters to the extent that it inspires action.
However, the theory is not a created thing, but a discovered one. If they took every anarchist in the world and shot us all, and if they took every anarchist text and burned and deleted them, there would still be people fighting power in a thousand years. Not only that, but there would be market anarchists among them. They would just call themselves something different. We can’t be defeated without fundamentally changing human nature, because our ideas are implicit within human nature.