If there is a State, there must be domination of one class by another and, as a result, slavery; the State without slavery is unthinkable—and this is why we are the enemies of the State. (Bakunin 1873 [1990: 178])
Anarchism is a socio-political theory which opposes all systems of domination and oppression such as colonialism, imperialism, racism, ableism, sexism, anti-LGBTTQIA, ageism, sizeism, government, competition, capitalism, and punitive justice, and promotes direct democracy, collaboration, interdependence, mutual aid, diversity, peace, transformative justice and equity.
David Graeber observes, anarchism was never a political philosophy on the model of other political philosophies, speculating about the essence of humanity or offering prescriptions for the perfect society; rather, it has been “primarily an ethics of practice,” the elaboration of practices that embody certain principles (2007: 305). Thus, when Goldman or Kropotkin speaks of anarchism as a “principle,” this is in the sense of an ethical norm, a principle-in-action that can be extrapolated from what it is that human beings already do
anarchism is the name for a movement, originating in mid-nineteenth century Europe, characterized by its vision of a society of generalized self-management, its opposition to all forms of hierarchy and domination, and its particular emphasis on means of transformative action that prefigure the desired ends. The word also serves to name the goal of the movement – substantive and universal freedom, sometimes called “anarchy” – elements of which may be found in every society that has ever existed, particularly among peoples living without private property and the state.
Emma Goldman (1869–1940) defines anarchism as “the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary”
anarchism is a form of social order rather than mere disorder or absence of organization; the form of social order anarchism represents is intended to maximize freedom, and to do so without recourse to the kinds of coercive institutions that are typically assumed to be necessary, variously called “government,” “law,” or “authority”; and in place of these institutions, anarchists propose to produce social order through a system of “free agreements” to meet individuals’ “needs.”
What is less tractable, even when informed by these explanations, is the common perception that what is being so explained is an “ideal” – possibly a noble ideal, albeit probably impracticable, and in any case, one that has never been put into practice anywhere. This misunderstanding is reinforced by academic treatments of anarchism as an abstract set of beliefs, the history of which is primarily a history of theorists or believers.
Here is how José Llunas Pujols (1855–1905), a Catalonian worker and anarchist, describes them: “delegates,” he observes, are to be “instructed in advance on how to proceed” by members of a group meeting in general assembly, and are “subject at any time to replacement or recall by the permanent suffrage of those who had given them their mandate” so that they “can never establish themselves as dictators”
Note that the assumption built into this practice is that delegates who are not given specific instructions, who cannot be held to account and recalled by the collectivity, may indeed be expected to seek and accumulate power. Indeed, far from assuming the best about “human nature,” it often appears that anarchist practices prepare against the worst: in the words of Mikhail Bakunin (1814–76), anarchists assume that “absence of opposition and control and of continuous vigilance inevitably becomes a source of depravity for all individuals vested with social power” (2002: 245).
All of the most important formulators of anarchist theory dispensed with notions of instinctual goodness right along with the doctrine of Original Sin, rejecting Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the state of nature as the idyllic home of the “noble savage” as well as Thomas Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature as a “war of all against all.” Rather than begin from any such imaginary starting point, they took for granted the fairly uncontroversial observation that human beings are capable of altruistic as well as egoistic behavior. To the extent that anarchist theory appealed to “natural laws” as the basis for a new social structure, these “laws” consisted largely of other such commonplaces, such as the recognition that concentrated power corrupts those entrusted with it, or that communities lacking a sense of solidarity and trust tend to require and solicit coercive authority. The point is neither to affirm nor to deny speculations such as Hobbes’s that “man is a wolf to man,” but actively to construct the social conditions under which human beings may be humane: as Paul Goodman remarks, “the moral question is not whether men [and women] are ‘good enough’ for a type of social organization, but whether the type of organization is useful to develop the potentialities of intelligence, grace, and freedom in [women and] men” (1968: 19).
Sharing the outlook reflected in the founding document written by Marx, which declared that “the emancipation of the toilers can be the work only of the toilers themselves,” Bakunin argued that this self-emancipation was incompatible with the methods of struggle Marx advocated, which aimed at the capture of state power, and which depended, in view of this goal, on the formation of workers’ parties that would reproduce all the features of the state (or, indeed, the church) within themselves: ideology, hierarchy, and discipline. Anarchism thus gained its identity as a movement from its relation to a broader working-class socialist movement of which it formed the anti-authoritarian wing; in the next generation, Peter Kropotkin would refer to it as “the no-government system of socialism,” and from the 1890s on, the term “libertarian socialism” has entered common use as a synonym for anarchism.
A second distinction that became apparent in the controversies that tore apart the First International would prove just as significant for the future of the anarchist movement. Bakunin objected to Marx’s identification of the socialist movement exclusively with the urban industrial proletariat – the particular segment of the working classes which, from the standpoint of Marx’s conception of history, represented the future, beside which every other class, however underprivileged, necessarily represented the past. For Bakunin, the exclusion from the ranks of potential revolutionaries not only of the petit bourgeoisie (self-employed shopkeepers and small business proprietors) but of the peasantry (small farmers and farm workers) and even the “lumpenproletariat” (the unemployed, criminals, and others living on the margins of the capitalist system), is unacceptable. Since, for the anarchists, revolution was not merely the inevitable outcome of a deterministic historical process but a moral obligation, all of the oppressed – in city or country, in factories or on farms, employed or unemployed, male or female – could participate. By the same token, anarchists refused to limit this revolution to a unique event or a single goal: Proudhon had spoken of “the revolution” as an ongoing process, a “permanent revolution,” the scope of which could be extended indefinitely by “analogy,” so that church, state, and capital appeared as so many different modes of domination. This lateral extension of the potential sites of anarchist resistance gave it a tactical and theoretical flexibility often lacking in Marxism (which would be slow to embrace forms of revolt that resisted reduction to its economic schemas and class categories), and would give anarchism relevance to political groupings that Proudhon himself had never countenanced, including women, migrant workers, homosexuals, environmentalists, ethnic minorities, and colonized peoples. In Goldman’s (1910: 56) words, anarchists took “every phase of life” as a potential terrain of struggle, from education to sexuality, from art and music to diet and dress.
Another position was “communism” (also called “anarchist communism,” “anarchocommunism,” or “libertarian communism”), which rejected the wage system entirely in favor of distribution according to need
Where anarchosyndicalists, like other labor radicals, saw the workplace as the primary site of exploitation and therefore as the primary battleground, individualist anarchists and anarchocommunists insisted that the emancipatory struggle was equally to be located in unwaged time and space, such as in the personal realm and domestic life, where oppression was largely a matter of informal customs and traditional institutions, often reinforced by the state, for example through the apparatuses of law, public education, and medicine.
In long-term strategy, too, the individualist anarchists, anarchosyndicalists, and anarchocommunists diverged. Thus, where the Proudhonian strategy had been to avoid revolutionary “shocks” by building up popular alternatives to capitalism and the state (such as cooperatives and credit unions) so as to gradually supplant them, anarchosyndicalists assigned the task of “forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old” to the labor union, which, on the eve of the last great general strike, would then serve as a ready-made organ for the self-management of society, a federation of workers coordinating production for use in the absence of capital and the state (Industrial Workers of the World 1908: 1). This conception of the union as the “embryo” of anarchy, strikingly similar to the notion of the soviets or “workers’ councils” in the libertarian Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg (1870–1919) and others, seemed overly reductive and rigid to anarchocommunists, for whom the proper unit of society was not the workplace but the community. It is argued that the commune is not only the most appropriate form for the expressions of all sides of the human person (rather than reducing the person to mere producer), but also more suited to the ecological vision of human beings as organisms inhabiting an environment.
Frankfurt School, under the name of “primitivism.” Where the naturiens were largely ignored or ridiculed by the leading anarchists of their day, who generally embraced scientific and technological progress as sources of revolutionary hope, the dire military and ecological trends of the mid-to-late twentieth century have made it more difficult to dismiss the charge that science and technology may both presuppose and reinforce domination and ecocide, and that it is naive to think that we can use them for other purposes. Nonetheless, a number of “eco-anarchists” such as Bookchin insist that certain sciences and technologies are presently useful and necessary, and that they may be made both humane and ecologically sound; conversely, it is argued, it is primitivism which has been naive in returning to Rousseau’s “noble savage” mythology (Bookchin 1971: 41–84; 1995: 36–51).
The tension between anarchism as a particular movement and its universalist aims has never ceased to raise questions. Indeed, the decision of the Spanish CNT union to join other left-wing factions in a Popular Front government in order to resist the fascists – for many then and since, a clear violation of principles – was defended in part by the argument that anarchists were too small a faction to dictate to others what course to take. In more recent decades this tension has manifested itself in connection with solidarity work of various kinds – for instance, of white American anarchists in support of African American movements or the Zapatista revolt in Mexico. For some anarchists, this kind of support work, reaching across sometimes substantial differences in goals and tactics, often means an unacceptable compromise; it is argued that to abandon, defer, or disguise anarchist goals in order to serve others is either to manipulate them or to be manipulated by them, and that anarchists should instead embrace their specificity, organizing their own movements and arguing openly for their ideas, finding allies where they can. On the other hand, anarchists inspired by the Zapatista principle of mandar obedeciendo (“leading by obeying”) as well as by the anarchist tradition of mistrust for Leninist-style vanguardism argue that rather than presuming to “lead” social movements of the oppressed, anarchists should attempt to help existing movements to self-organize, even when not all goals are shared
Finally, the very fact of living within the state poses routine moral and tactical problems for anarchists, particularly in so far as states adopt some of the characteristics of democracy and socialism. Proudhon himself, in the revolutionary moment of 1848, sought election to the French parliament as a platform for his economic proposals, albeit without success and to his rapid regret. Then and now, each election renews the question of whether it is appropriate or useful for anarchists to vote in defense of civil rights and social welfare. For many anarchists (and perhaps most), this question is always to be answered in the negative, on principle: even when there is something to be gained by voting or lost by abstaining, voting fails the test of means-ends consistency. Moreover, it is argued, such engagement with the system always risks legitimizing it, diluting radical energies; reforms and welfare initiatives stifle discontent and coopt potential revolutionary actors, and even voting defensively against fascists means becoming the tool of political rivals. However, a number of anarchists, from Saverio Merlino (1856–1930) to Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), have objected to hardline abstentionism, which can seem to sacrifice the direct interests of the oppressed in the present for the sake of a principle located in the future.
“I am an Anarchist! Wherefore I will Not rule, and also ruled I will not be!”
John Henry Mackay