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Is there anything radical about anarchism? 

Mick Armstrong 

14 July 2007

In recent years anarchism has gained a following among people repelled by the horrors of twenty-first century globalised capitalism - environmental destruction, third world poverty, imperialist wars and rampaging transnational companies. 

In the wake of the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the abandonment of any pretence of radicalism by reformist Labor parties, and in the absence of a mass socialist movement, anarchism can appeal to radical young people who do not see the collective power of workers as the force to achieve social change. 

Anarchists claim to be irreconcilable rebels against the existing order, opposed to the state and all forms of hierarchy. They portray themselves as "libertarians" - defenders of individual freedom - and dismiss Marxists as "authoritarian". 

One of the problems in writing about anarchism is the sheer variety of political currents that adopt the label. On the far right we have libertarians committed to a no-holds-barred capitalism. This branch of anarchism opposes any interference by the state in an individual's right to exploit others for their personal gain. For these anarchists, any restriction on the freedom of Rupert Murdoch to go on raking in billions is "authoritarian". 

At the other end of the spectrum there are syndicalists who largely agree with the Marxist critique of capitalism and look to collective working class action to change the world. Syndicalists argue for strong union organisation and mass action - such as general strikes - to overthrow capitalism. This makes syndicalism vastly superior to other forms of anarchism - indeed many syndicalists entirely reject the anarchist label and call themselves socialists or Marxists. 

The weakness of syndicalism is that it downplays the importance of political action and the need for a clear working class political leadership to challenge every aspect of capitalist power and ideology. This means that while syndicalists have led many heroic struggles, they have not been able to turn those revolts into a successful challenge to capitalist rule. 

However, very few of today's self-styled anarchists identify as syndicalists. The predominant currents are various forms of lifestyle anarchism which in turn merge into "autonomism" and/or the masked Black Blocs with their terrorist-style antics. 
Lifestyle anarchism 

Lifestyle anarchism is the predominant form. As the anarchist author Murray Bookchin, who is critical of some aspects of lifestylism but shares the underlying politics, writes: 

"The 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who - their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside - are cultivating a latter day anarchist individualism... Ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the anti-rational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence, a basically apolitical and anti-organisational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life, reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism." 
Some environmental activists have been influenced by this approach, combining individual lifestyle politics with efforts to "create living alternatives to our present ways". Hence the emphasis on "affinity groups" (usually just another name for friendship circles), consensus, squatting, hostility to driving cars, not eating at McDonalds, veganism etc. 

This lifestyle approach focuses on how we live our lives rather than on the best means of winning a struggle. It challenges no aspect of the repressive and exploitative society it supposedly opposes. 

Lifestylism usually goes hand in hand with the dismissal of workers as at best bought off or at worst, according to Bookchin, as "our enemies". "Indoctrinated from birth," says Bookchin, workers are "an organ within the body of capitalism." 

The anarchist view of "freedom" is basically a form of extreme individualism. It is based on the absolute inviolability of the individual Ego in relation to the outside world - the total impermissibility of the imposition of authority of any kind upon the unconditional autonomy of the sovereign Ego. 

As the Marxist writer Hal Draper describes the anarchist approach: "It does not mean freedom through democracy, or freedom in society, but, rather, freedom from any democratic authority whatsoever or any social constraint: in short, not a free society but freedom from society." 

The most logically consistent form of anarchism is absolute individualism. "Freedom," wrote Michael Bakunin, one of the founders of anarchism, "is the absolute right of every human being to seek no other sanction for his actions but his own conscience, to determine these actions solely by his own will, and consequently to owe his first responsibility to himself alone." 

But there is nothing radical in this argument. It is used to justify every conceivable form of anti-social behaviour: the right of the well-off to send their kids to elite private schools, the right of scabs to cross picket lines, the right of racists to spew their filth, the right of business owners to despoil the planet and exploit workers. 

As Draper puts it: "Of all ideologies, anarchism is the one most fundamentally anti-democratic in principle, since it is not only unalterably hostile to democracy in general but particularly to any socialist democracy of the most ideal kind that could be imagined." In rejecting "all authority, even with consent," it upholds "the right of a small minority to impose its conception on the large majority, if necessary by violence." 

This is very much the approach of Black Bloc anarchists who specialise in violent attacks on the symbols of authority. In Europe there has been a recurring pattern of masked squads of Black Bloc anarchists disrupting mass protests with provocative attacks on police, smashing up banks with iron bars and the like. 

These antics have been remarkably effective in sabotaging genuine protests and imperilling the lives of other protesters - but singularly ineffective in challenging capitalism. All they have done is play into the hands of the authorities who use the mindless violence of the Black Blocs as an excuse to crack down on all dissent. Unsurprisingly the Black Blocs are riddled with undercover police acting as provocateurs. 

There is a long tradition of anarchists resorting to individual terrorism - so-called "propaganda of the deed". The US anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to assassinate the hated industrialist Henry Clay Frick, French anarchists engaged in waves of bombings, Russian anarchists repeatedly attempted to kill the Tsar, while small groups of Italian Bakuninists launched "insurrections" in an attempt to spark a wider rebellion. 

This approach reflects the underlying elitism of anarchist politics. Rather than attempting to organise the mass of workers to fight for their own self-emancipation, they rely on the actions of a self-chosen minority. 

The US anarchist Emma Goldman - still very popular among anarchists today - puts the anarchist position most starkly: 

"The multitude, the mass spirit, dominates everywhere, destroying quality... 
"The majority cannot reason; it has no judgement. Lacking utterly in originality and moral courage, the majority has always placed its destiny in the hands of others... 
"I therefore believe with Emerson that ‘the masses are crude, lame, pernicious in their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I wish not to concede anything to them, but to drill, divide, and break them up'. 
"In other words, the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination of intelligent minorities and not through the mass." 

The conclusion for anarchists like Goldman is identical to that of conservatives - opposition to mass, democratic control from below: the working class can't and shouldn't rule. This extreme elitism is not an aberration of Goldman's, but addresses a contradiction at the heart of anarchism: if a mass movement or organisation aimed at concerted action does not operate on the democratic method of open debate, followed by majority rule and centralised implementation, how does a movement go forward? 

There are two possible outcomes: either there is no concerted action because the participants are each "doing their own thing," and the movement therefore dissolves or collapses in defeat; or decisions are made by individuals who are not elected and not accountable to anyone. 

But anarchist principles don't allow open, accountable leadership. So instead anarchists fall back on secret, elite bands - the "invisible" leaders that Bakunin praised. 

Marxists hold to a vision of human liberation that is totally different from that of anarchists. We look to the conscious action of the mass of workers to win their own liberation. 

The task of socialists is not to substitute their own actions for those of the working class as a whole, but rather to intervene in mass struggles to argue a way forward and to patiently explain the ideas of socialism. In order to have any hope of achieving liberation, the most politically conscious workers need to organise their own revolutionary party to challenge the hold of reformist parties and union leaders. 

For Karl Marx - who had considerable experience of the disastrous impact of anarchists on the early working class movement - anarchism was not a beautiful vision of saintly dreamers but a sick social ideology. Rooted in an idealist theory of the state, it oscillated between opportunism in politics and a frenzied flight from political reality to adventures in individual terrorism. 

Anarchism continually regenerates itself as a kind of primitive rebellion against tyranny and oppression. But in practice it is a dead end. 

Anarchism invites young people who are radicalising to move into elitist politics that focus on lifestylism which challenges nothing, or attempts to set up "liberated" spaces - not to change the world, but to escape from it. Alternatively it leads to the pseudo-radicalism of the Black Blocs with their futile, violent attacks on the symbols of capitalist privilege. 

Those seeking to genuinely challenge capitalism must reject anarchism and commit themselves to revolutionary Marxism - the politics of mass, democratic struggle of workers to collectively transform society. 

From the Australian magazine Socialist Alternative


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