Listen to the Episode — 66 min
Alanis: The Ex-Worker:
Clara: an audio strike against a holiday world;
Alanis: a twice-monthly podcast of atheist ideas and action;
Clara: for everyone who dreams of a life without Christmas.
Alanis: Ho ho ho! Welcome to episode fifteen of the Ex-Worker - our very special Holiday Special! Today we’ll get into the Christmas/holiday spirit by taking a merry little sleigh ride through the devastating critiques and actions anarchists have levied against religion over the years.
Clara: In addition to all the god-bashing and intellectual deicide, we’ve got feedback on one of our previous episodes from anarchist prisoner Sean Swain, plus plenty of riots and revolts to stuff your stocking. My name’s Clara…
Alanis: And my name is Alanis, and we’ll be your Ghosts of Christmas Past. For links and more info about anything we discuss today, don’t forget to visit our website at crimethinc.com/podcast. And if you want to get in touch, send an email to podcast [at] crimethinc [dot] com, or leave us a voice mail: 202–59-NOWRK; that is, 202–596–6975.
Clara: Now let’s get into the spirit of the holidays.
THE HOT WIRE
Alanis: We’ll get things rolling with the Hot Wire, our report on rebellions and struggles around the world.
Clara: In Kiev, enormous protests have erupted against government plans to back down from greater economic integration with the EU under pressure from the Russian state. Ukrainians built an encampment in Independence Square, defended by enormous barricades, and clashed with riot police.
Alanis: Capitalist media coverage focused on the protestors’ decapitation of a statue of Lenin, in order to promote a triumphant post-communist narrative of capitalist democracy and EU integration. Of course, there are other currents in the demonstrations, including radicals interested in liberation outside of the Russia/EU binary. But there has also been a considerable right-wing nationalist presence in the protests - including young men in black hoodies fighting the police! Remember our discussion of the so-called National Anarchists or Autonomous Nationalists in Episode 11? Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time we see wolves in black bloc clothing attempting to cash in on faux-anarchist street militancy to promote repressive ideas.
Clara: Former South African revolutionary and international icon Nelson Mandela died at age 95. His life and legacy have been universally praised by everyone from Obama to revolutionary political prisoner Tom Manning of the United Freedom Front, an underground armed group that carried out bombings in solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle. Tom wrote:
Alanis: “Mandela. He gave his life and we accept his gift with sadness and determination to stay focused on the principles and promise of a world worthy of Amandla! Power of the people! It has been, and continues to be a long walk to freedom. The struggle continues!”
Clara: We also wanted to see what South African anarchists had to say. We’ll share an excerpt from an article released earlier this year by Tina Sizovuka of the Tokologo African Anarchist Collective about “Brand Mandela”, the commercialization of Mandela’s legacy by the current neoliberal regime of the African National Congress party:
Alanis: Like any other nationalist propaganda, Brand Mandela has been a used by the rich and powerful to perpetuate a rotten class system – a system the ANC helps maintain through its neo-liberal policies, elite “empowerment” deals and police massacres. A system that has caused misery for the millions of poor South Africans Mandela is said to have “liberated”.
In South Africa, this class system is run by an alliance of (mostly white) private capitalists and (mostly black) state managers who collude in their mutual class interests. Since our bloody history has ensured very little space exists for black hopefuls in the white-dominated private sector, the state has become the key means to access money and power…
And finally, to set the record straight, Mandela was not the one-man author of the country’s liberation – even if he played an important role; he never claimed to be. For the advances made in 1994, the black working class majority and its allies of all races, have only themselves – their own collective strength and solidarity – to thank."
Clara: Other critics have pointed out that the emergence of harsh neoliberal capitalism as a condition of so-called democracy in South Africa has actually benefited the white minority and a small black elite more than the black majority, as seen in the decreased life expectancy, persistent poverty, and ongoing violent repression of labor. Perhaps this indicates that a revolutionary struggle, however heroic, cannot genuinely transform the realities of life for millions, or dislodge entrenched racial hierarchies, without uprooting its foundation in capitalism and private profit. Only when economic and social revolution challenge this foundation will we be able to assess the true legacy of Mandela.
Alanis: Meanwhile, the Elsipogtog resistance to fracking continues in occupied New Brunswick, Canada.
Clara: Riots erupted in Singapore after an Indian man was hit by a bus and killed, with hundreds of immigrant workers torching vehicles and attacking police.
Alanis: In Germany, an anonymous group sabotaged a Vodafone radio phone tower, issuing a communique condemning the company’s collaboration with government intelligence agencies and declaring solidarity with whistleblowers Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.
Clara: In Finland?
Alanis: Yes, in Finland! With hockey sticks!
Clara: With hockey sticks?
Alanis: Yes! Finnish anarchists called for a counter-demonstration against Independence Day festivities in Tampere, under the theme “Hockey Guest Party.” Hundreds of people marched, chanted, broke windows, fought police, and played hockey.
Clara: Finland! You can find a link to a video of the action through our website, crimethinc.com/podcast.
Clara: In Durham, North Carolina, 17-year old Jesus Huerta died in police custody, the fourth black or Latino man to die at the hands of law enforcement in Durham in the past several months. The Durham police chief claimed that Huerta had somehow managed to shoot himself fatally in the head after having been searched, handcuffed behind his back, and put in the back of a patrol car. An angry demonstration of hundreds took the streets and smashed out windows at the police headquarters. The police department set up an anonymous hotline for citizens to call in with information about crimes committed at the demonstration.
Concerned Citizen: I have some information…
Clara: And now it’s time for Listener Feedback! Today we have an exciting opportunity to engage with Sean Swain, an anarchist prisoner incarcerated in Ohio, whose writing we’ve mentioned and read excerpts from on the Ex-Worker before. On his website, Sean Swain dot org, supporters have posted an essay he wrote titled, “On Fascism: One Anarchist’s Response to CrimethInc’s Podcast #11.” In it, Sean sums up the understanding of fascism we put forward and offers some critique and elaboration. His goal is “to provide a fuller context and, hopefully, a much greater appreciation for the reasons that anarchists, more than anyone, recognize the danger that fascism truly represents.” If you want to read it in its entirety, we’ve got the link posted on our website, crimethinc.com/podcast.
Alanis: He begins by explaining how he understands freedom, using Ward Churchill’s definition: “the absence of external regulation.” If we imagine a continuum of freedom ranging from complete absence of regulation to total external control, then we can see that anarchists, as the sole folks envisioning a world free from all government, alone advocate the extreme edge of freedom. All other political ideologies are distinguished merely by the degree to which they oppose absolute freedom. Citing fascist theorists who emphasize the complete supremacy of the state over the individual, Sean positions fascism at the opposite end of the continuum from anarchism, representing the total negation of freedom by state power. Therefore the entirety of the remaining political spectrum – from communists to social democrats to republicans – forms a sliding scale of how many degrees removed from fascism each position is. Thus, he argues, even nominal anti-fascists such as communists and socialists share the same belief in the necessity of the State, differing with the fascists only in the amount of power that should be invested in it. He offers a striking metaphor, in keeping with the theme of this episode: “In the analogy of state worship, fascists sit in the first pew while the communists and socialists sit in the very back – but they all attend the same service. The only socio-political formations that do not bow to the fascists’ god are Anarchists.” Therefore, since only Anarchists can present a full and complete critique of fascism, historically fascists have sought to eliminate us first and foremost.
While fascists of the extreme right or neo-Nazi variety should certainly be opposed, the unpopularity of their views renders them far less a threat than those who “do wield State power and implement policies and programs that are distinctively fascist in that they serve a transcendent State.” Obama need not sport a swastika to serve “a de facto fascist agenda… of extreme and absolute non-freedom thinly disguised as a representative republic.” Sean concludes, “The State is central to fascism. If you want to defeat fascism, defeat the State. Only Anarchists can do that.”
Clara: Hear, hear! First off, we want to thank Sean for checking out our material, and also big thanks to his comrades on the outside who listen to the show and printed out a transcript and mailed it in so that he could have the opportunity to engage with it. That’s awesome! We’re grateful to you.
Alanis: Now, to respond to Sean’s analysis: we might try to broaden our notion of fascism and how it relates to anarchism by adding another dimension to our definition of freedom. In addition to absence of external regulation, we’d add our capacity to act and realize our potential. This is what makes the slogan “No One is Free when Others Are Oppressed” concrete; the oppression of others may or may not serve as an external regulation to us individually, but it does inhibit our realization of our collective potential.
Herein lies another key opposition between fascist and anarchist approaches to the world. Fascists believe that realizing the potential of a race or a nation can only come via authority at the expense of the Other (the non-citizen or foreigner, the inferior race or religion, the sexual or cultural deviant, etc). On the contrary, anarchists believe that we can only realize our full potential via self-determination based in solidarity and mutual aid.
Clara: On a practical level, we’re a little wary of the overuse of the term “fascist,” which is often thrown around against nearly any force that hurts or restricts us. Of course, Sean’s definition is principled and intentional; but characterizing all non-anarchist political ideologies as essentially more or less virulent varieties of fascism risks eclipsing some of the specific characteristics of fascism as it has appeared over the past century - not to mention alienating potential allies in anti-fascist struggles. Anarchists can’t defeat fascism alone, but we can use shared opposition to it to introduce others to broader critiques of state power.
Alanis: Coming back to our notions of freedom and the state, we also have to consider the distinction between what different political ideologies advocate in theory versus what they execute in practice. For instance, the US national debt nearly tripled under Reagan, whose whole thing was supposedly reducing government spending; likewise, communist ideology originally held that the state should ultimately wither away, but the extreme degree of state control exercised over public and private life in 20th century communist and socialist governments rivaled that of fascist regimes. Coming back to the state worship analogy, socialists and communists may have had seats reserved for them at the back of the chapel but in practice jockeyed with fascists for space in the very front pews. Similarly, folks who are supposedly liberal according to the US political spectrum advocate for greater state control over gun possession and various other aspects of social life relative to their “conservative” counterparts.
Clara: In other words, to compare anarchism with fascism and other political positions, we need to consider more than just the degree of state power or regulation. The ascendancy of so-called libertarianism and other anti-state but pro-capitalist ideologies shows that promoting a lesser role for the state alone doesn’t necessarily line up with anarchist aspirations. There are inherent contradictions in these ideologies, of course - try having a market economy based on private property without a state and let me know how that goes for ya – but it still reveals another axis we need to consider in plotting our politics onto the coordinates of freedom. Imagine a plane with two intersecting axes; one is the continuum between centralization and decentralization, while the other ranges between hierarchy and equality. Let’s start on the more centralized end of the spectrum; veering towards hierarchy, we arrive at fascism, while towards equality we arrive at state communism. On the decentralized but hierarchical quarter, we encounter capitalism and its libertarian defenders. Only when we arrive at both decentralization and equality do we reach anarchy. (If you’re having a hard time imagining this, a graphic version appears on page 155 of the CrimethInc Contradictionary.)
Alanis: We unequivocally agree with Sean that anarchists are uniquely positioned to oppose fascism as the sole folks out there who reject all the varieties of state power, from totalitarian to nominally democratic. That’s why we spent two episodes exploring fascism and anti-fascism, and why we hope our listeners, and any inspired by anarchist ideals, will continue to fight against fascism and state power in all of their forms.
Clara: What do y’all think? After we focus on the question of what anarchism is in our first episode of the new year, we’ll also spend some episodes considering what anarchism is NOT, including a discussion of libertarianism and neoliberal critiques of the state. As always, hit us up with any feedback or suggestions via email to podcast at crimethinc dot com.
Alanis: And now it’s time to share a piece of the CrimethInc Contradictionary. This episode is brought to you by: Religion and Moralism.
Alanis: For more explorations of the war in every word, visit crimethinc.com/contradictionary
FEATURE: GOD IS DEAD, IMHO
Alanis: It’s that time of the year again. It’s in the air: the sickly sweet formaldehyde smell of new consumer products and cinnamon-scented potpourri; the incessant whine of slick pop versions of Christmas carols; the urgings from every direction to prove to your loved ones and acquaintances that you care by purchasing them items off their Amazon Gift List to stuff into their Santa sacks of useless crap.
Clara: Ah, Alanis! You’re such a Scrooge. Loosen up!
Clara: C’mon, it’s Christmas! It’s a time for giving, playing in the snow and taking time off from work. Don’t be such a cliché. Merry Christmas to all!
Alanis: Hey, Clara: bah-humbug! First of all, it doesn’t snow where I live, and anyway, when does an anarchist podcaster ever get time off from work? So what, if it’s the Christmas - oops, I mean, the holiday season…
Clara: Happy Holidays! Sorry, go ahead with your tirade, it’s my Xmas gift to you.
Alanis: But putting aside the obligatory mention of Hannukah and half-hearted gestures towards multiculturalism, everything about the US is rooted in Christianity, from the holidays on the calendar to the language in our laws. And there’s nothing like the Christmas season’s constant inescapable reminders that we live in a world structured around a death-obsessed cult devoted to an imaginary boss in the sky to drive an anarchist like me nuts.
Justin Bieber: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…
Alanis: Oh, christ, cut it out!
Clara: C’mon, Alanis, get over it! We’re just pulling your sleigh bells. Anyway, what does this season have to do with religion anymore, anyway? The church marquees beg us to put the Christ back in Christmas, but everybody can see that at this point its function is economic. Consumer capitalism would crash if we all decided to pull the plug on buying Christmas presents.
Alanis: All the more reason why anarchists should declare war on Christmas.
Clara: Well, aren’t you a Grinch!
Alanis: Maybe I am. But I’m part of a long and proud line of anarchist grinches, who’ve been foaming at the mouth giving wild-eyed livid rants about Christianity and religion for as long as anarchists have been around.
ANARCHISTS AGAINST RELIGION, FROM THE 19TH CENTURY TO TODAY
"For centuries kings, rulers, churches, leaders have been treating the people like a vile miserable herd to be fleeced and butchered. And for centuries the disinherited — thanks to the deceitful mirage of Heaven and the terrible frightful vision of Hell — have been docile and have stood misery and slavery. It is time that this odious sacrilege, this abominable fraud come to an end!
To you who listen to me, I say: Open your eyes, look, observe, understand. The heaven of which they have incessantly spoken to you, the heaven with which they try to lessen your misery, deaden your pain and suffocate the protest which, in spite of everything, comes from your heart, is unreal and deserted. Only your hell is real and peopled.
Enough of lamentations; lamentations are fruitless.
Enough of prostrations; prostrations are sterile.
Enough of prayers; prayers are impotent.
Arise, ye men! On your feet! And with a rebellious cry of indignation declare an inexorable war against that God whose depressing veneration has been imposed upon you for so many years. Free yourselves of the imaginary tyrant and shake the yoke of His self-appointed representatives on earth.
Remember, however, that by this first move — of liberation you will have attained only a part of your goal.
A partial liberation would serve no purpose. It is necessary that, along with the chains with which the imaginary Gods have spiritually bound you, you also break those with which the passing but actual gods of the earth have bound you physically and materially. Remember!
When you will have chased away both the earthly and the heavenly Gods, when you will have liberated yourselves from the masters above and the masters below, when you will have completed this double act of liberation, then you will escape Hell and attain Paradise!
-Sebastian Faure, “Does God Exist? Twelve Proofs for the Nonexistence of God”, 1908
Clara: The history of anarchists against religion stretches back as far as people have been called anarchists. From the 19th century to the present day, anarchists have consistently identified religion, particularly Christianity, and belief in God as key ramparts defending the hierarchical society they opposed. While some core critiques have remained constant over the years, others have shifted to reflect changes in political context, the role of religion in society, and philosophical trends within anarchist thought. The classical anarchists of 19th and early 20th century Europe and America pulled out all the stops in their impassioned tirades against religious superstition as a fetter to the ongoing progress of the human spirit. As times changed, later writers treated scientific atheism more critically, celebrating the wonder and mystery possible beyond the constraints of capitalism and religiosity. What follows is a brief survey of some of the anarchist salvos against religion over the past two hundred years.
Alanis: To frame what the classical anarchists have had to say about god, religion, and atheism, we need to put them in the context of the Enlightenment embrace of the scientific method and rationalism, plus the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution. Influenced by skeptics and critics such as Rousseau, Voltaire, and Diderot, the first proto-anarchists of the European tradition railed against religion for its irrationality and its defense of the miserable status quo. The romantic poet, rebel and all-around passionist maniac Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from University College, Oxford for writing a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Atheism”; his mentor William Godwin, perhaps the first modern proponent of anarchism, began his career as a minister but evolved agnostic and then atheist convictions.
Alanis: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first anarchist to embrace the label, devoted the final chapter of his 1847 book “The Philosophy of Poverty” to a discussion of human nature, morality, and religion. After a long and winding set of arguments intended to refute the Christian notions of the fall and grace, sin and redemption, and divine providence, he gets to it:
Proudhon: “And for my part I say: The first duty of man, on becoming intelligent and free, is to continually hunt the idea of God out of his mind and conscience. For God, if he exists, is essentially hostile to our nature, and we do not depend at all upon his authority. We arrive at knowledge in spite of him, at comfort in spite of him, at society in spite of him; every step we take in advance is a victory in which we crush Divinity.”
“And now here you are dethroned and broken. Your name, so long the last word of the savant, the sanction of the judge, the force of the prince, the hope of the poor, the refuge of the repentant sinner, — this incommunicable name, I say, henceforth an object of contempt and curses, shall be a hissing among men. For God is stupidity and cowardice; God is hypocrisy and falsehood; God is tyranny and misery; God is evil. As long as humanity shall bend before an altar, humanity, the slave of kings and priests, will be condemned; as long as one man, in the name of God, shall receive the oath of another man, society will be founded on perjury; peace and love will be banished from among mortals. God, take yourself away! for, from this day forth, cured of your fear and become wise, I swear, with hand extended to heaven, that you are only the tormentor of my reason, the spectre of my conscience.”
Alanis: Ultimately, he doesn’t argue for atheism per se, but merely that to whatever extent there is a god, that god is essentially antagonistic to our freedom and irrelevant to our lives. Thus, to embrace what he calls a “practical atheism” is crucial to living a liberated life.
Clara: The anarchist formerly known as Prince, Peter Kropotkin, wrote extensively about ethics in an effort to lay the foundation for a non-religious basis for evaluating our behavior. Insurrectionary French socialist Louis-Auguste Blanqui coined the phrase “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre!” in 1880; its translation, “No Gods, No Masters,” has become perhaps the best known anarchist slogan of all time.
Alanis: Well, to be just a little nerdy here for a minute, the French phrase technically says “neither god nor master,” which is slightly different, in that rather than just being a list of things to be against, it implies a continuity between the unearthly god and the earthly master that I think is significant…
Clara: Whatever you say, Alanis.
Alanis: Anyway. Perhaps the most influential and scathing old-school anarchist critique of religion appears in Mikhail Bakunin’s classic “God and the State.”
Clara: Wasn’t that actually the first piece of anarchist writing you ever encountered, Alanis?
Alanis: Yep. Blew my fifteen-year-old mind. Still does. He revisits the myth of the Garden of Eden, and argues that the only moral creature was the snake, because he freed humanity from the shackles of its ignorance and servitude to God. Wow! I mean, listen to this:
Bakunin: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice. He who desires to worship God must harbor no childish illusions about the matter, but bravely renounce his liberty and humanity. If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist. I defy anyone whomsoever to avoid this circle; now, therefore, let all choose.”
Alanis: Take that, god-believers!
Clara: The immigrant anarchists in the US picked up where Bakunin left off and ran with it. German-American agitator Johann Most wrote an essay called “The God Pestilence,” which begins:
Most: “Among all mental diseases which man has systematically inoculated into his cranium, the religious pest is the most abominable.”
Alanis: In her 1916 essay “The Philosophy of Atheism,” Emma Goldman inverts the notion that religion serves to examine the deeper questions of life against the minutiae of daily existence. Instead, she argues, belief in god redirects us away from the most pressing and real concerns of our lives towards abstractions; in the modern era, in which countless religions and cults compete for our attention, this dovetails with consumerism to further distract us from the material realities of exploitation. Capitalists and politicians feel great anxiety at growing indifference to religion, because the masses…
Goldman: “are quite willing to leave the Great Beyond and its heavenly domain to the angels and sparrows; because more and more the masses are becoming engrossed in the problems of their immediate existence.”
Alanis: She concludes,
Goldman: “Mankind has been punished long and heavily for having created its gods; nothing but pain and persecution have been man’s lot since gods began. There is but one way out of this blunder: Man must break his fetters which have chained him to the gates of heaven and hell, so that he can begin to fashion out of his reawakened and illumined consciousness a new world upon earth. Only after the triumph of the Atheistic philosophy in the minds and hearts of man will freedom and beauty be realized.”
Clara: Anarchists also promoted radical critiques of society within non-political atheist currents. For example, in the late 19th century United States, Voltarine de Cleyre stood at the intersection of radical politics and the burgeoning anti-Christian Freethought movement. In her essay “The Economic Aspect of Freethought” she argues that a rational critique of the existence of god entails a critique of authority and government. Pointing out the inconsistency of those who criticized religion while blindly accepting the mandate of state power, she declares:
De Cleyre: “Craven, you worship the fiend, Authority, again! True, you have not the ghosts, the incantations, the paraphernalia and mummery of the Church. No: but you have the “precedents,” the “be it enacteds,” the red-tape, the official uniforms of the State; and you are just as bad a slave to statecraft as your Catholic neighbor is to popecraft. Your Government becomes your God, from whom you accept privileges, and in whose hands all rights are vested. Once more the individual has no rights; once more intangible, irresponsible authority assumes the power of deciding what is right and what is wrong.”
Alanis: Atheism wasn’t just an elite intellectual current; hatred of churches and priests flourished in radical working class movements, especially in the Catholic countries of western Europe. As the French anarchist Ravachol was marched up to the guillotine in 1892, condemned to death for dynamite attacks against the state, he sang the popular radical song “Le Pere Duchesne”; the very last words to come out of his mouth were these:
Si tu veux être heureux (Nom de Dieu!) Pends ton propriétaire… Coupe les curés en deux (Nom de Dieu!) Fout les églises par terre (Sang Dieu!) Et l’bon dieu dans la merde (Nom de Dieu!)
Alanis: Very, very roughly translated, it’s something along the lines of: “If you want to be happy, hang your landlord, cut the priests in half, rip the churches to the ground, and chuck the good lord into the shit.”
Alanis: Anti-clericalism – that is, opposition to the power of priests and the clergy - enjoyed strong support in the French and Spanish anarchist labor organizations. The radical Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer founded free schools based in libertarian values as a counterpoint to the religious education system run by the Catholic Church. When fascist General Francisco Franco staged the military coup that set off the Spanish Civil War, the Catholic Church backed the right-wing rebels, condemning the Republican side as fighting as a war against god. In Republican-controlled territories revolutionaries struck back, destroying churches and religious symbols and in some cases attacking priests and clergy. After the defeat of the revolution, the Catholic Church remained one of Franco’s closest allies during his fascist dictatorship. Perhaps this helps explain some of the vehemence with which Antonio Garcia Baron, the last known survivor of the Durruti Column we discussed in Episode 12, spoke about his desire to escape the confines of civilization so as to avoid the world of priests.
Clara: Of course, anarchists weren’t the only ones challenging religion and advocating atheism. Attacks on religious faith came from various quarters, from respectable academics and philosophers like Bertrand Russell, from the alternative grassroots groups such as the Freethought movement we mentioned, and very strongly from communists and socialists. When the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, they mounted a campaign against the Orthodox Church, liquidating much of their assets to fund state projects, and tearing down churches and monasteries or making them into grain silos. The Soviet government established an organization called the League of the Militant Godless, which published anti-religious propaganda, persecuted priests, and established museums commemorating science and atheism. We can see the impact of this repression of religion lingering today (for example, if we compare the much lower rates of faith and church-going among East Germans relative to their western counterparts. However, seventy years of promoting an official state philosophy of scientific atheism didn’t extinguish religious fervor, which re-erupted dramatically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the authoritarian cult of the Soviet state collapsed, the traditional cult easily flowed back into the place it vacated.
Alanis: If classical anarchism went into decline with the advent of the second World War, its resurgence in the rebellions of 1968 and beyond brought with it a continuation of the struggle against religion, but with new nuances. In France, inspired by the Situationists (who we’ll describe in depth in an episode soon), it reappeared on the walls during the uprising in Paris: “How can we think freely in the shadow of a chapel?” and, “We want a place to piss, not a place to pray.”
Clara: The Situationists formed one of the major influences on contemporary anarchist anti-religious thought, along with the emerging green and anti-civilization ideas of Fredy Perlman and others, as well as insurrectionary and individualist perspectives. These currents, combined with the insights of seeing decades of grim state socialism in action, reframed the relationship between atheism and anarchism. Many of the classical anarchists, as we’ve heard, glorified science and rationalism, seeing the rejection of religious superstition as another step on the unstoppable march of progress. Newer critics, though, identified the top-down, dogmatic atheism of the Soviet Union as another form of authoritarian religiosity, and lamented the alienation from ecstasy and deep meaning common to both religious and scientific atheist experiences within civilization. Let’s look at some examples.
In the first issue of Killing King Abacus, one of the early expressions of insurrectionary anarchism in the US released in 200,, an article titled “Drowning” advances a powerful individualist critique of the religious impulse to submerge the self in the oblivion of its mass delusion. It maintains,
“Those who choose the oblivion of religion are not merely cowards, but traitors to themselves and to all who strive for self-realization, because religion — however soft and malleable its form (even in the guise of spirituality, that insidious thief which steals the marvelous from the physical world and encrusts it with belief, destroying its fluid and convulsive beauty) — is part of the social system that stole our creativity from us to construct the monstrous, gray nightmare that surrounds, this mad civilization that replaces creativity with production, free activity with work, vibrant living interactions with technological and bureaucratic mediation. This explains how religion is an opiate: it makes us oblivious to the anguish of our suppressed uniqueness and creativity, allowing us to forget the damage without curing it. It numbs us to the point where we accept the damage and its cause, civilization in its totality. One can see how certain forms of atheism… can be religions. Atheism only avoids religiosity by having an existential as opposed to a dogmatic basis — that is as a willful decision to refuse god rather than a belief in no god. And the willful refusal of god has its basis precisely in the decision to extract ourselves from the infinite — that is the mass — and to live to the full the singularity of our being, drawing the universe into ourselves as our own and, thus, creating the marvelous in all its poetic beauty…”
Alfredo Bonanno picks up on this theme in a section of his 2010 piece “Palestine, Mon Amour”, in which he criticizes the ideology of progress that can mislead us into thinking that adopting anti-religious policies will necessarily dislodge obedience and hierarchical thought. He contends:
“Neither simple atheism nor anti-clericalism are sufficient when they are no more than expressions of blind rationalism. It is necessary for man to evolve his refusal of God with his own personal responsibility and individual engagement in the struggle against authority.”
Wolfi Landstreicher’s 2005 essay The Network of Domination discusses religion as an expropriation of our ability to determine meaning for ourselves, parallel to how the state and private property expropriate our relationships to each other and the material abundance of the earth. Defining the sacred as that which is separated hierarchically from the rest of our lives to become the sole purview of specialists, he argues, “It is precisely the nature of the sacred as separation that gives birth to the gods. On close examination, what is a god if not the symbol of the misplaced human capacity to will, to act for oneself, to create life and meaning on one’s own terms? And religion, in creating gods, in fact serves the ruling class in a most essential way. It blinds the exploited to the real reason why they are separated from their capacity to determine their own existence. It is not a question of expropriation and social alienation, but of a separation that is inherent in the nature of things… The end of this separation would be the end of the sacred and of religion.”
Alanis: And then of course, there’s anarcho-punk… [cue up your fave, editor’s choice!] from the late 70s and 80s onwards, the emerging punk subculture definitely had a bone to pick about god. Bands such as Crass, Oi Polloi, Chumbawamba, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion (obviously), Amebix, and countless others criticized religion in their lyrics and imagery, catalyzing a whole generation of angry youth to break up with god. For an extra special treat, check out our website for a playlist of the top 10 anti-religious anarcho-punk songs, complete with links.
Clara: And don’t forget about CrimethInc…
Alanis: Crime who?
Clara: CrimethInc! You know, the…
Alanis: Oh, right! The decentralized anarchist collective composed of many cells which act independently in pursuit of a freer and more joyous world. The revenge for that flag they put on the moon where we couldn’t burn it! Gotcha.
Clara: Yep, that’s the one. Didn’t they put out a book once that says something about religion?
Alanis: Oh, yeah. Days of War, Nights of Love starts off by breaking down the phrase “No Gods, No Masters”; the “No Gods” section takes apart the notion of morality and moral law in a world without god. It concludes, “For your own sake, for the sake of humanity, cast away the antiquated notions of good and evil and create your values for yourself!”
Clara: That’s cool. But didn’t they put out an album by some Christian band?
THE POLITICS OF RELIGION AND ANTI-RELIGION TODAY
Alanis: So we have this whole litany of wild critiques of god… but what have anarchists been doing about it? In the old days, anarchists organized in Freethought societies, published anti-religious pamphlets and newspapers, and in revolutionary moments attacked the infrastructure of the church. But today it seems like religion has vanished off the radar of anarchist direct action.
Clara: Well, I don’t know if that’s quite true. There have been a number of anti-religious actions taken by anarchists in recent years. In the US, most notably there was the queer anarchist group Bash Back!’s War on God, a series of actions targeting notoriously homophobic churches. One of them, a disruption of a church service in Lansing, Michigan, resulted in this high-profile lawsuit called the Mount Hope Infinity case. In Peru three years ago there was an incendiary attack against a church in solidarity with Marie Mason & Eric McDavid. A UK cell called the ‘Free Thought Association / Fraction of Gender Renegades’ burnt a vehicle of the “Jesus Kingdom City” and issued an anti-religious communique last year. The Russian anarcha-feminist art punks from Pussy Riot were sent to jail and got all that media attention not just for criticizing Putin, but for doing it sacrilegiously in a church. And we reported last episode on the Chilean and Spanish anarchists arrested in connection with an attack on a Zaragoza cathedral.
Alanis: OK, you’re totally right. There definitely have been some actions, and some cool ones, too. But proportionally, compared to the other issues anarchists focus on today, and compared to the gravity that anti-religious agitation used to have for anarchists a century ago, it seems clear that something has changed. What’s up with that?
Clara: Well, some people argue that it’s because religion simply doesn’t hold the kind of power over human life and thought it used to, even a hundred years ago.
Alanis: I think that’s dangerously naive. The modern Christian right is an incredibly powerful political force in the US and globally…
Clara: And a lot of the so-called “progressive” churches serve a pacifying role, redirecting outrage over global injustice into charity and sympathy rather than organized resistance – not to mention the time and energy that go into maintaining churches as organizations.
Alanis: And elsewhere, the political power of conservative Islam, in state and non-state varieties, has increased dramatically in recent decades, thanks in large part to western military and covert operations obliterating much of the secular Islamic left. And beyond the broader trends of religious power in the political sphere, look at the stranglehold religious dogma still exerts over the upbringing of young folks, especially in smaller towns and rural areas here in the US. Society may have secularized in some formal ways, but religious zealots have become more organized and politically savvy than ever.
Clara: Regardless of how religion’s sway may have receded in recent decades, have you noticed a cultural shift in western capitalist democracies that protects religion from public debate? This notion that religion is not a political matter, and as a factor of individual conscience or culture, one’s religious beliefs are not up for social critique… which distracts us from the function that religion serves in maintaining a hierarchical society.
Alanis: Right! This liberal multiculturalism largely washes away any critical discourse about the role of religion in society. When religion is categorized as private rather than public and cultural rather than political, there’s no room to analyze whether a religion oppresses its adherents. And I think we can’t actually understand the world as it exists today without assessing the role religious ideology plays in cementing hegemonic systems of power.
Clara: I see what you’re saying, but you might be veering towards some sketchy territory here. In the spirit of Hanukkah, let’s not make any argument that an Empire could use to put pigs in anyone’s temple… if you know what I mean.
Alanis: Uh, I don’t think I do… Clara: The traditional Hanukkah story is that a king persecuted his Jewish subjects, and tried to make them practice a religion that affirmed his Empire - He desecrated their temple with pigs - and the holiday celebrates the temple re-dedication that contributed to a successful revolt. Alanis: Uh… Clara: Point being: couldn’t this line of thought be used to justify anti-Semitism or Islamophobia? Alanis: Aha! OK, pigs aside, that’s an important point. Let me be clear here: there are anarchist struggles to abolish anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and there is no place for either of these bigotries among anarchists.
Clara: Good. I agree. Both anti-Semites and Islamophobes use stereotyped religious difference to justify hierarchy. Anarchists oppose hierarchy, oppose stereotyping, and oppose efforts to remove human difference. Alanis: So anarchists might fight the State of Israel without resorting to generalizations about “the Jews.”
Clara: Yes. And we have to. Again, the important thing here is to look at the function these systems serve. Anti-Semitism has historically been a tool for the powerful to scapegoat a minority for conditions of economic oppression or political turmoil. Today, hatred of Muslims is a rallying point for the extreme right and anti-immigrant zealots, and used to support the US war on terror and expansion of the global surveillance state. I’m saying we should focus attention on what role religious (or anti-religious) ideologies play in the power relationships in our world.
Alanis: Some contemporary anarchists have argued that we have to separate criticizing religion from cultural and racial oppression so as to oppose the latter while still engaging in the former. In this vein, an article in the Italian anarchist magazine “Machete” criticized an emerging tendency on the European left to decry “religious racism” by contrasting it to the long history of radical struggles against religion. They wrote, “There is such a thing as anti-Arab racism that needs to be fought, but there is no anti-Muslim racism. Islam is an ideology, and must be fought as an ideology, in the same way as capitalism, Nazism, Hinduism, or Catholicism. What we have conquered through hard struggle cannot be compromised by making peace with any cult.”
Clara: That might be a little too simplified. I can’t speak for their context, but while I understand the desire to avoid conflating religion with race and culture and giving it a privileged status, it seems that in the US and global context today, as we just discussed, repression against Muslims as such forms an important tactic for the expansion of imperial power. In fact, many of the same repression tactics now used against anarchists - infiltration by informants, new forms of electronic surveillance, Communication Management Units in federal prisons, etc - were debuted against Muslim communities. There are anarchist voices from the Muslim world speaking out against Islam, as well as anti-authoritarian Muslims active within radical struggles around the world. The same is true for Judaism, and probably other religions, too.
Alanis: The goal here isn’t to point out the flaws of each individual religion,but to point out that we need to be able to criticize religion and the powerful role that it has in shaping our world. This British anarchist Nicholas Walter summed it up pretty well in 1991 in a talk where he’s exploring whether or not there’s an inherent connection, negative or positive, between anarchism and religion. After looking at histories of religiously motivated anti-authoritarian rebels, the views of classical anarchists, and contemporary atheist politics, he concludes:
Walter: “There is indeed a strong correlation between anarchism and atheism, but it is not complete, and it is not necessary. Most anarchists are non-religious or anti-religious and most take their atheism for granted but some anarchists are religious… The true anarchist attitude to religion is surely to attack not faith or the Church so much as what it is in so many people that needs faith and the Church, just as the truly anarchist attitude to politics is surely to attack not obedience or the State so much as what it is in most people that needs obedience and the State the will to believe and the will to obey. And the last anarchist hope about both religion and politics is that, just as the Church once seemed necessary to human existence but is now withering away, so the State still seems necessary to human existence but will also wither away, until both institutions finally disappear. We may yet end with Neither God nor master!”
“Much as I am opposed to every religion, much as I think them an imposition upon, and crime against, reason and progress, I yet feel that no other religion has done so much harm or has helped so much in the enslavement of man as the religion of Christ.”
Alanis: Emma Goldman, 1913
Clara: OK, so what about Christian anarchism?
Alanis: What about it?
Clara: Well… it’s a thing, isn’t it?
Alanis: Yeah - an oxymoron. What part of “No Gods, No Masters” don’t you understand?
Clara: Now, wait a minute… there’s actually a pretty rich tradition of Christian radicals whose beliefs led them to reject state power.
You’ve got Leo Tolstoy, who was one of the first influential proponents of anarchist ideas. Christian anarchists were involved in founding the IWW, and the Catholic Worker movement has been challenging war and poverty for like 80 years. The Berrigans helped catalyze the anti-Vietnam War movement and were fugitives from the FBI. Theorists like Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul have contributed important ideas to radical circles. And consensus decision-making practices that became hallmarks of feminist and anarchist organizing largely emerged from Quaker religious communities. There’s even a yearly conference for Christian anarchists in the US, I think. Sure, you won’t agree with them on everything, but what group of anarchists ever does? Why are you so hostile to people whose religious convictions lead them towards similar conclusions as you?
Alanis: Well, first because I reject the idea of basing politics on appeals to authority, full stop. Conservatives say the Bible supports war and homophobia; liberals say it supports peace and tolerance. Fascists think it says we should obey state authority, Christian anarchists think it says we should reject it… it’s just a mirror for our own convictions. Cut out the middle man! We can argue all day about what the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 13 REALLY means, but when it comes down to it, I DON’T CARE. I don’t rely on canonical texts or divine authority to tell me what’s right and wrong; I rely on my own reason, experience, intuition, and affinities… because I’m an anarchist.
Second, because the kinds of anarchism that many of the so-called Christian anarchists espouse doesn’t actually have that much in common with mine. Pacifism on moralistic grounds, as opposed to diversity of tactics evaluated in terms of effectiveness; nonresistance and avoiding paying taxes versus actually disrupting the war machine, etcetera… I believe in active resistance and struggles rooted in our desires, not moralism… because I’m an anarchist.
And third, building off what Nicholas Walter said, my beef is less with any single religion than with religiosity; less the specific dogmas people believe in than the part of ourselves that wants to believe, to locate the sacred outside of ourselves, to delegate the meaning of our lives to others. To me anarchism isn’t simply an ideology or a policy platform, but an approach to life - always questioning, always challenging, never settling for the shortcuts of authority and always taking responsibility to live according to our own values and desires.
This isn’t to say I feel any personal antipathy towards particular Christians who call themselves anarchists. In particular, Catholic Workers do a lot of admirable, confrontational organizing and provide resources for anti-war and anti-prison movements. Nor do I think that all of the values they espouse are bogus; many of them overlap with my own. It’s mostly frustrating that we have to spend so much time and energy clarifying that anarchists are opposed to hierarchy, when all these people who are into various kinds of hierarchy want to claim the label. Libertarians who are complicit in economic hierarchy; Christians who believe in a spiritual hierarchy; neo-fascists who advocate racial hierarchy…
Clara: Well, perhaps you’re too hung up on policing the boundaries of anarchist identity rather than focusing on finding affinity with whomever wants to engage in similar struggles.
Alanis: Fair enough. In general, I think that the social role of religion is to dampen down revolt, not encourage it. But I care way more about whether someone wants to fight than if they believe in a god or not. Still, that’s not gonna stop me from sticking up for what I call anarchism.
Clara: Exactly what DO you call anarchism, anyway?
Alanis: Ha… that’ll have to wait for the next episode, I’m afraid!
Clara: (psst- speaking of which: have you written in to share your definition of anarchism yet? don’t forget to send in your thoughts on what anarchy means to you by the new year if you want us to incorporate it into our New Year’s episode - podcast at crimethinc.com.)
NEXT WEEK’S NEWS
Alanis: Now it’s time for Next Week’s News, where we give you a heads up about ways to plug into global resistance.
Clara: As we mentioned last episode, the main thing on our radars right now are the New Year’s Eve demonstrations planned outside prisons, jails, and detention centers around the world. Find one or organize one in your area and let folks inside know that they’re not forgotten.
Alanis: And in the New Year, there’s the “Father Frost Against Putin” Festival taking place in Helsinki, Finland, a chance for Russian and Finnish radicals to connect their resistance struggles, followed by the Baltic Anarchist Winter Meeting the following day.
Clara: We wanted to share a call for support we saw go out for political prisoner Oso Blanco, who’s locked up for robbing over a dozen banks to raise funds for the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas. He’s threatened with solitary confinement for a nonsense charge, and has requested folks to contact the prison or write him in support. You can find more info on the situation and his contact information on our website.
Alanis: And there are a few birthdays coming up for political prisoners. On the 17th, we’ve got Chelsea Manning, the Wikileaks heroine who exposed US military brutality;
Clara: and also Connor Stevens from the Cleveland 4, an Occupy movement activist framed in an FBI-generated bomb plot.
Clara: And that’s it! Thanks to Underground Reverie, Oscar the Grouch, and various others for the music. This podcast is a production of the CrimethInc Ex-Worker’s Collective.
Alanis: We’re planning to keep putting episodes out in 2014 at the same pace we’ve tried to stick to this year, twice monthly on the first and third weeks of each month. Does that work for y’all? Do you want more, less, longer, shorter? What kinds of topics do you want us to tackle in the new year? Your feedback means a lot. Send us an email to podcast at crimethinc dot com and let us know.
Clara: All right, thanks for listening! Till next time-
Alanis: As the Greeks say: Merry Crisis and Happy New Fear!
Links and references from this episode of The Ex-Worker:
Don’t forget to write in and tell us what anarchy means to you, so we can include it in our first episode of the new year on “What is anarchism?” Send us an email with your thoughts to email@example.com.
Among the 19th and early 20th century anarchist critiques of religion, get started with Mikhail Bakunin’s classic God and the State. Emma Goldman’s essays “The Failure of Christianity” and “The Philosophy of Atheism” are enjoyably scathing, as are Johann Most’s “The God Pestilence” and Sebastien Faure’s Does God Exist? Twelve Proofs for the Non-Existence of God. The final chapter of “The Philosophy of Poverty” by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin’s work on ethics, and are erudite, if dry, expositions of radical Enlightenment atheism. Also check out Voltarine de Cleyre’s essay “The Economic Aspect of Freethought”
Among contemporary critiques, some of our favorites include “Drowning,”, from the 2000 insurrectionary anarchist magazine Killing King Abacus,Alfredo Bonanno’s “Palestine, Mon Amour”, Wolfi Landstreicher’s 2005 essay The Network of Domination, and of course the “No Gods” section of the CrimethInc classic Days of War, Nights of Love. We also cited Nicholas Walter’s 1991 talk on Anarchism and Religion. The Anarchist FAQ’s discussion of religion is a helpful jumping off point, too.
So what about anarchist religion? That’s really beyond the scope of this episode, but if you want to know more, we’ve got a few resources. The writings of Peter Lamborn Wilson / Hakim Bey offer some of the most creative and playful engagements with spirit and mystery from an anarchist perspective: you could start with “Anarchist Religion?”, “Spiritual Anarchism: Topics for Research”, and parts of the books “T.A.Z.” and “Millennium”. Regarding Islam, there is the scathing pamphlet “The Misery of Islam” by Al-Djouhall, and also a growing body of work on contemporary Islamic anarchism, including Mohamed Jean Veneuse’s work on “Anarca-Islam”. Jewish Anarchism has a long and lively history; You can also read Gary Snyder on Buddhist Anarchism, Clayton Dewey on Anarchism and Unitarian Universalism, and thoughts on anarchism and Taoism.
Si tu veux être heureux (Nom de Dieu!)
Pends ton propriétaire…
Coupe les curés en deux (Nom de Dieu!)
Fout les églises par terre (Sang Dieu!)
Et l’bon dieu dans la merde (Nom de Dieu!)
If you want to be happy (Bloody hell!)
Hang your landlord…
Cut the priests in half (Bloody Hell!)
Rip the churches to the ground
And chuck the good lord into the shit (Bloody Hell!)
Special Bonus Playlist! “Fuck Your God, Mom!”: Alanis & Clara’s Top 10 Anti-Religious Anarcho-Punk Songs
1) Crass - Reality Asylum
2) Naked Aggression - Religious Lies
3) Leftover Crack - Atheist Anthem
4) Amebix - No Gods, No Masters
5) Oi Polloi - Religious Con
6) Burnt Cross - Jacking Up On Jesus
7) Aus Rotten - Modern Day Witch Hunt
8) Chumbawamba - Today’s Sermon
9) The Varukers - Another Religion, Another War
10) Minor Threat - Filler
“On Fascism: One Anarchist’s Response to CrimethInc’s Podcast #11” by Sean Swain, as discussed in our listener feedback section
Here’s the video of the hockey-playing Finnish anarchist rioters in Tampere.
Byron Chubbuck #07909051
P.O. BOX 305
JONESVILLE, VA 24263
Political Prisoner Birthdays coming up soon:
PVT Bradley E Manning* 89289 (December 17)
1300 North Warehouse Road
Ft Leavenworth, Kansas 66027–2304
Address card/letter to Chelsea, envelope to Bradley
Connor Stevens #57978–060 (December 17)
Post Office Box 8000
Bradford, Pennsylvania 16701
William Phillips Africa #AM–4984 (January 1)
Follies Road, Drawer K
Dallas, Pennsylvania 18612–0286