New New Left is born
Bob von Sternberg / Star Tribune
In the 1930s, the Old Left was born. In the '60s, it
was the New Left's turn in the spotlight. At the dawn
of a new century, another grassroots protest movement
has taken root in a bid to challenge the establishment.
Call it the New New Left.
Or call it anarchism, as many of its followers and
detractors do, however imprecisely.
"People are starting to understand that institutions
don't represent us, so it means there can be no
meaningful participation in the political system," said
Bob Greenberg, a self-described anarchist who was one
of the most visible and vocal organizers of the Hwy. 55
protests. "There's always been a streak of youth culture
that's anti-authoritarian, but I think the youth are
starting to wake up."
Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalester College,
has noticed the stirrings of this movement, most notably
its strengthening strange-bedfellow ties with the labor
movement. "The media tends to label all of this as
anarchism, but it's a genuinely new movement that's more
amorphous and complicated than that," he said. "Some
people do call themselves anarchists, but I don't think
that describes the entire movement."
Whatever it's called, this movement has been in the news
a lot recently.
It was the biggest story to emerge from the protests
against the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle
last fall and nearly as big during the subsequent protests
against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in
Washington, D.C. Earlier this month, anarchists were center
stage in Minneapolis' biggest May Day protest in years, as
they were during the Hwy. 55 protests. Small anarchist
cells in such longtime left-leaning cities as Eugene, Ore.,
and Berkeley, Calif., have clashed with authorities in
recent months. And there are plans in the works to stage
protests at the Republican and Democratic national
conventions this summer.
At this point, several questions about this fledgling
movement don't have answers: just how big it is, whether
it can forge robust ties with potential mainstream allies
like labor unions, whether it has staying power -- or is
it nothing more than the newest political flavor of the
"This dissent is centered around many poles, from
multinationals to the WTO," said Rachleff, who coined the
New New Left phrase. "So the biggest question is whether
having a common enemy is enough to keep these groups going."
The sheer breadth of the issues and organizations that the
movement has taken on is reminiscent of a line from "The
Wild One," a 1954 movie about a motorcycle gang. When
Marlon Brando's character is asked what he's rebelling
against, he memorably replies, "Whaddya got?"
A partial list can be gleaned from the flyer promoting the
Minneapolis May Day demonstration, which organizers called
"a festival against corporate globalization. We want this
festival to unite issues such as workers' rights,
environmental protection, food safety, animal rights,
cultural preservation and many more important issues."
To that list can be added sweatshop labor, organic farming,
old-growth forests, vegetarianism, Third World debt relief,
China trade and the death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Or,
as the May Day organizers put it, "we strongly encourage
you to bring your own issues."
Such eclecticism is matched by the breadth of like-minded
anti-globalization organizations, including Earth First!,
Global Trade Watch, Global Exchange, Rainforest Action
Network, Anarchist News Service, the Black Bloc and the
Black Army Faction. But "organization" is a slippery
concept in this case because what unites many of the
protesters is their abhorrence toward structure and
Or, as Greenberg put it, "We do not have leaders or spokes
people in this movement. What we are going after are those
things that benefit the haves at the expense of the
Even though more than 400 protesters poured into the streets
of downtown Minneapolis on May 1, because of the lack of
formal organization, it's impossible to come up with a hard
number of local anarchists and their allies. They've had a
shadowy presence in the Twin Cities for more than a decade.
(Remember the window-smashing Revolutionary Anarchist
Bowling League of the late 1980s?)
An instructive experience
If the movement manages to sprout a significant presence in
the Twin Cities, the experience of Eugene, Ore., may be
instructive. There, a city of 150,000 that's the home of both
Nike and the University of Oregon, a small cell of anarchists
gained a foothold nearly two years ago.
They have fought authorities over the removal of trees in the
city's downtown, attacked Nike outlets, banks and restaurants,
and leafleted banks and lawyers' offices with such slogans as
"actualize industrial collapse."
"As governments and corporations continue to kill us, many --
mainly leftist and liberal types -- still carry an article of
faith in creating change through playing by the rules and
being 'civil' to the system," according to one of their
manifestos. "When a society is built on violence, violence is
one of the only things that society can understand and take
Most notoriously, about 200 of Eugene's anarchists hurled
rocks and bricks during a downtown march last June. Eight
police officers were injured and 20 marchers were arrested.
There have been no recent clashes, said Eugene Mayor Jim
Torrey. "We've got various groups of activists in this city
who use the banner of anarchist when it's in their best
interest," Torrey said. "A lot of them are mostly interested
in environmental issues like old-growth, endangered species
and wetlands. When it comes to pure anarchists, I don't think
we've got more than 25 or 30. And the most radical of those
are very young, under 25."
Torrey is bracing for a repeat of last year's violence this
August, when hundreds of students are expected to gather in
Eugene for a protest against Nike's Third World labor
practices. "We have people in this community who feel very
strongly about things like the WTO and unions, but I start
to worry when the anarchists start getting involved," Torrey
In the Twin Cities, Greenberg, who is 32 and works for a
nonprofit environmental group, argues that "destruction of
property is not violence -- windows are inanimate objects.
We believe life, not property, is sacred and so we stand up
for it. If you stop a bulldozer that's destroying part of
the ecosystem, it's like taking a gun out of the hand of a
David Foster is someone who has experience with both the
West Coast and Twin Cities variants of the movement. As
director of the United Steelworkers' district that stretches
from Minnesota to Seattle, he took part in the Seattle
protests. "Certainly, there were some well-organized
ideological groups out there," Foster said. "But I think
it's wrong to characterize them all as anarchists.
Politically, people in this movement are all over the
place, but most are extremely thoughtful practitioners of
direct action and civil disobedience."
Foster is one of a growing number of labor leaders who are
reaching out to adherents of the movement by exploring areas
of common ground. In recent months, the steelworkers and
environmental activists have formed a once-unlikely bond by
jointly taking on Kaiser Aluminum Corp., which has locked out
3,000 steelworkers from its manufacturing plants. Its parent
company also has come under fire for its management of a
California old-growth forest.
So several months ago, Foster found himself taking part in a
"tree sit," perched high in the old-growth grove. "It was an
indescribable experience," he said. "We need to find ways
to link up with and support these groups every way we have."
Given the fact that environmental activists and union members
have often been at loggerheads, "there's been a level of
discomfort in my own organization, but the level of suspicion
has gotten much lower since Seattle," Foster said. "After
sitting in the streets of Seattle, these people have gotten
overwhelming respect from our members."
Locally, steelworkers have been having discussions with
members of the Sierra Club and are helping organize a chapter
of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment,
Foster said. "We need to be where the social conscience of
America is," he said. "A lot of young people have a sense of
outrage that's been missing in this country for 20 years.
It's refreshing to find it again."
Rachleff has detected the same thing among his students, one
reason he thinks this movement has the potential to grow and
endure. "There's this strong desire to make other people's
lives better," he said. "These people aren't interested in
just trying to raise hell. They have a real political
aesthetic -- they're skeptical of authority, desire big
changes in the system and have a real sense that the personal
is political. I think we have a new student movement in this
What is anarchism?
Eric Black / Star Tribune
Anarchism is a philosophical movement that advocates nearly
total liberty for individuals and generally opposes all forms
of authority, especially laws and governments, except small
The common perception that anarchism means a state of total
chaos is wrong, said political scientist Terence Ball of
Arizona State University, coauthor of a recent book on
political ideologies. The Greek origin of the word "anarchy"
actually means "no government" or "no rule."
Anarchists believe that if all government were abolished,
many of the problems for which people think they need a
government would disappear, and those remaining problems
that required collective action would be handled by small
voluntary associations that would crop up as needed.
Noam Chomsky, the linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology and the best known of modern U.S. anarchists, has
written that the key principle of anarchism is "that the
burden of proof is always on those who argue that authority
and domination are necessary" and that wherever they are found
to be unnecessary, they should be dismantled.
The roots of the modern anarchist movement are often traced
to the Frenchman Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who wrote
that "governments are the scourge of God."
Max Stirner (1806-1856), a German disciple of Proudhon,
explained why, writing that "every State is a tyranny . . .
[because] the State has always one purpose: to limit, control,
subordinate the individual and subject him to its general
purposes . . . Through its censorship, its supervision and its
police, the State tries to obstruct all free activity and sees
this repression as its duty."
[Note: Calling Stirner a "disciple of Proudhon" is a major
inaccuracy. Stirner did not recognize Proudhon as a fellow
libertarian. His major work, _The Ego and Its Own_ in fact
critiques Proudhon, though the critique relies upon a mis-
interpretation and they did in fact share very similar
views. -- DC]
Proudhon had wanted to abolish government by means of a
peaceful revolution, but Russian anarchist leader Mikhail
Bakunin (1814-1876) added the element of revolution by force,
with which anarchists have been associated in popular
understanding ever since.
Anarchists influenced by Bakunin were associated with random
bombings and assassinations of political leaders. Leon Czolgosz,
the young Cleveland factory worker who assassinated U.S.
President William McKinley, was an anarchist. But not all
anarchists endorse violence as a means to bring about change.
Anarchists have historically concentrated on opposing state
power, but as Chomsky's summary suggests, they are suspicious
of any entity that obtains coercive power over individuals, and
in recent decades that has led anarchists to pay more attention
to the power of corporations.
"The anarchists who protested at the [World Trade Organization]
meeting in Seattle and at the [International Monetary Fund]
meeting in Washington think that there's now been a devil's pact
made between advanced capitalist nation states and international
corporations," Ball said, "and that alliance puts people's
liberties ever more at risk."