Anarchism: the A word
Ben Rubin, Emma Goldman/Celebrate People's History, 2002, courtesy of Justseeds.org
I must have been eight or nine years old when I first heard the a-word. I don’t remember the context, but I do remember asking my mother what ‘anarchists’ were. She said: anarchists are people who want to destroy everything, and rebuild it all from scratch.
To her credit, my mother’s answer was quite generous: at least it included the part about rebuilding. It did get me thinking that anarchists had good intentions, that they wanted to ‘destroy everything’ not just for the hell of it, but because they thought ‘everything’ was unjust and dysfunctional. Her definition was neither accurate nor very nuanced, but there was a grain of truth to her association of anarchism with the notion that society needed to be changed at a very fundamental level, and that such change couldn’t happen through piecemeal reform but instead required a thorough transformation from the ground up.
I think I was lucky; imagine what most kids hear in response to the same question.
In 1910 American activist Emma Goldman wrote: ‘Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals.’
A full century after Goldman penned her inspiring words, there remains the same need to dispel misconceptions about anarchism, bred of the unholy matrimony between plain ignorance and vile slander. Chaos, suffering, destruction, tumult, strife – these are things that anarchists have never called for. Yet most people imagine anarchists as people who do actively desire such things, people who must be either evil or insane.
But actually there is nothing very surprising here. As Goldman noted in the same essay: ‘In its tenacious hold on tradition, the Old has never hesitated to make use of the foulest and cruellest means to stay the advent of the New… Indeed, as the most revolutionary and uncompromising innovator, anarchism must needs meet with the combined ignorance and venom of the world it aims to reconstruct.’
This has led many who endorse anarchist values to shun the label itself. Some activists will call themselves ‘libertarian socialist’, ‘anti-authoritarian’, ‘autonomous’, or nothing at all, just to avoid the a-word and its bad PR. But there are also those of us who carry the label with pride, and tirelessly repeat what it really stands for.
Direct action – a core principle
What, then, do anarchists want? The answer is simple. Anarchists want a social order without rulers or hierarchy. Anarchists want freedom and equality for all. We want a world with no borders and no social classes, no gods and no masters, where power is as decentralized as possible and every individual and community can determine their own destiny. We believe in independent thought, international solidarity, voluntary association and mutual aid. This is why we seek the abolition of capitalism and the state, which place economic and political power in the hands of a tiny minority. It is why we resist patriarchy, white supremacy, compulsory heterosexuality and all other systems of domination and discrimination. And it is, I suspect, why so many teachers, corporate journalists, clergy, business people and police work so hard at hiding our values from the general public.
What also distinguishes anarchists is a strong commitment to being the change we want to see in the world. This approach, sometimes called ‘prefigurative politics’, is evident in decentralized organization, decision-making by consensus, respect for differing opinions and an overall emphasis on the process as well as the outcomes of activism. It is also the motivation for our constant effort to deprogramme ourselves and overcome behaviours and prejudices that are sexist, racist, homophobic, consumerist and conformist. As anarchists we explicitly try to be and live what we want, not just as end goals, but as guides to political action and everyday life.
This relates to the core of practical anarchist politics – the principle of direct action. Anarchists understand direct action as a matter of taking social change into one’s own hands, by intervening directly in a situation rather than appealing to an external agent (typically the government) for its rectification. It is a ‘Do It Yourself’ approach to politics based on people-power, mirrored by a total lack of interest in operating through established political channels.
Most commonly, direct action is viewed under its preventative or destructive guise. If, for instance, anarchists object to the clear-cutting of a forest, then taking direct action means that rather than petitioning the loggers or engaging in a legal process, they would intervene literally to prevent the clear-cutting – by chaining themselves to the trees, or lying in front of the bulldozers, or pouring sugar into their gas-tanks – all acts which can directly hinder or halt the project.
But direct action can also be understood in a constructive way. Anarchists who propose non-hierarchical social relations, or an ecologically responsible economy, undertake to construct and live such realities by themselves. Building alternatives from below, anarchists are involved in many projects, collectives and networks which are intended to be the groundwork for a new society within the shell of the old. Leading by example, anarchists seek to demonstrate in the most practical terms that ‘another world is possible’.
A movement reborn
The anarchist idea is as ancient as the institutions it resists; the notion that people can live together without a class of rulers or concentrations of wealth inspired the earliest slave rebellions as well as religious heretics throughout the ages – including the early Christians. Modern anarchism, for its part, emerged with the workers’ movement of the 19th century, and at least in southern Europe, was the political orientation of its overwhelming majority. The first writer to call himself an anarchist was the French social theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who also declared that ‘property is theft’. Anarchism became clearly defined as an independent movement with the 1872 split in the First International between the workers’ representatives who followed Karl Marx, and those who followed Proudhon and the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin. Unlike the Marxists, who expected to overwhelm capitalism through parliamentary elections (or, later on, by seizing state power), anarchists called for abolishing the state and capitalism simultaneously. Whether they were peasants staging an uprising or militant unionists building up to a general strike, anarchists consistently steered a revolutionary course towards stateless socialism by stateless means.
It is only in the recent decade or so that anarchism has experienced a full-blown revival on a global scale
Anarchism had its ‘golden age’ during the early decades of the 20th century. These saw massive peasant and industrial union activity in almost every country of Europe and the Americas, as well as the liberation of much of the Ukraine during the Russian civil war of 1919-21, and much of Catalonia during the Spanish civil war of 1936-39. But the physical elimination of most of the European anarchist movement by the Bolshevik and Fascist dictatorships, as well as the American ‘Red Scare’, effectively wiped anarchism off the map.
It is only in the recent decade or so that anarchism has experienced a full-blown revival on a global scale. This was largely the result of the rediscovery – since the late 1960s – of anarchist values and tactics by numerous social movements which did not use the label. Activists also progressively came to see the interdependence of their agendas, manifest in ecological critiques of capitalism, feminist anti-militarism, and the interrelation of racial and economic segregation. Contemporary anarchism is rooted in the convergence of the radical ends of feminist, ecological, anti-capitalist, anti-racist and queer liberation struggles and agendas, which finally fused in the late 1990s through the global wave of protest against the policies and institutions of neoliberal globalization.
Maturity and playfulness
Today the anarchist movement is a mature global network of activist collectives, involved in any number of struggles and constructive projects – from resistance to mining in Indonesia and anti-nuclear action in Germany, through solidarity with Palestinians in the West Bank and communal farming in France, and on to climate campaigning in Britain and labour struggles in South Africa. Anarchists also participate in, and are often the main organizers of, projects and campaigns which have a much broader appeal – research groups who monitor the corporate world or international institutions, local economic initiatives, women’s health collectives, non-profit bicycle workshops, public art projects... The number of anarchist publications, bookfairs and websites is rising every year, as is the geographical, cultural and age diversity among anarchists themselves.
Another feature of anarchist action is its creativity and playfulness. Inspired throughout its history by avant-garde movements from the surrealists to the Situationists, and more recently by a diversity of global cultures and subcultures, anarchism today displays more humour and fun than perhaps any political movement in history. Activists will often stage street theatre displays, art exhibitions and elaborate hoaxes; they might come to a demonstration dressed up as turtles, pink fairies or business people; and they will certainly pay attention to the beauty as well as the productivity of their eco-farms and community gardens.
Yes despite all these features, most of the public is only exposed to anarchism when some of its exponents employ confrontational tactics in mass protests – smashing the windows of banks and corporate outlets, blockading political and economic summits and, in some countries, fighting police and/or neo-Nazis in the streets. Whether these tactics are still effective or have turned into theatrical rituals is debatable. I, for one, believe that the occasional public display of organized rage and well-targeted disruption contributes to the vigour and dynamism of the ongoing social struggle. Also debatable is whether this gives anarchists a positive or a negative reputation. Here, it is worth noting that many people who complain about confrontational action in their own countries are quite supportive of similar or even more militant tactics when they occur in Libya, Bolivia or Iran. Are they merely not-in-my-back-yard pacifists? Or do they believe that their right occasionally to elect a capitalist politician gives their governments more legitimacy than a dictatorship should enjoy? Anarchists certainly do not.
In a future plagued by energy scarcity, climate instability and financial meltdown, anarchist values and forms of organization will become increasingly important. The 21st century may well see the collapse of global capitalism under the weight of its own excesses – but there is no guarantee that what we get instead will be any more humane or equal. Eco-fascism, eco-feudalism and eco-fundamentalism are just as likely. The challenge anarchists and their allies face today is to disseminate their skills and ideas, creating a better chance that the move through industrial collapse will lead to a truly liberated world.
Emma Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays
Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action
Gustav Landauer, Revolution and Other Writings
Daniel Guerin, No Gods, No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism
Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism
David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.