Contemporary anarchism

IN DECEMBER 2008, Time magazine ran the headline, “Could Greece’s Riots Spread to France?”1 The article was accompanied by fiery images of anarchists battling police on the streets of Athens. Four months later, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper fretted that a planned march against the G-20 meetings in London, “could be hijacked by anarchists who are known to create so-called ‘black blocs’—tight, hard-to-break units which can smash through police lines.”2 More recently, student resistance to the economic crisis facing colleges and universities in the United States has sparked debates with anarchists who propose a maximum strategy to “occupy everything” and yet, “demand nothing.”3

Since the advent of the global justice movement of the 1990s, anarchist ideas have had a renaissance, and continue to attract growing numbers of adherents, despite detractors in the mainstream media and political repression from the police. For the social movements of the past decade, the broad ideas of anarchism have defined the political landscape. These ideas express themselves in a multitude of ways: from consensus based decision-making models, activist collectives, spokes councils, and affinity groups to black bloc tactics at demonstrations and targeted property destruction (bank windows, ATMs, Starbucks, parking meters, etc).

While the black-hooded anarchist rioters of global justice demonstrations remain the media’s favorite spectacle, anarchists of all types are currently debating new tactics, political shifts, and reassessments of the anarchist tradition. Importantly, strains of contemporary anarchism have offered convincing critiques of the lifestyle approach to social change, rehabilitated the legacy of syndicalism, reoriented to class struggle, and initiated new ways of relating to the working class and social movements. At the same time, other anarchists have mounted vicious attacks on the organized political left and activism in general.

This article is an attempt to explore these new developments and seek common ground with the best aspects of today’s anarchism. Further, this article will analyze the shared assumptions of these disparate strains of anarchist thought and offer a Marxist critique of anarchism’s historical, as well as present, shortcomings.

Big “A” and little “a”
The most common definitions of anarchism stress two points; first, anarchists are opposed to any form of coercive authority; following from this, anarchists are opposed to state power and seek to destroy it. But even this basic definition ignores the important distinction between anarchists who emphasize collective action rather than individualism, or who avoid any strategies focused on the state (even its destruction). Indeed, a major characteristic of anarchism is the breadth of ideas, often contradictory, that fall under its umbrella. It is not uncommon for people such as Max Stirner, Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Michael Bakunin, John Zerzan, Emma Goldman, or even Gandhi to be included in the broad tradition of anarchism.4 One anarchist has written, “To call yourself an anarchist is to invite identification with an unpredictable array of associations, an ensemble which is unlikely to mean the same thing to any two people, including any two anarchists.”5

The last stand of traditional anarchism, which reached its high point in Spain during the 1930s, suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Franco’s fascists and the criminal policies of the Stalinized Communist Party. A once vibrant international anarchist movement was in ruins by the end of the Second World War. In the United States, political repression and Red Squad terror decimated the anarchist ranks more than a decade earlier. Small, isolated groups of anarchists survived, but never again reached the influence once attained during the Spanish Civil War.

Only with social upheavals of the 1960s did anarchism begin to reemerge with any significance. Because of the revolutionary, anti-imperialist movements then taking place in colonial countries like Cuba and Vietnam, the dominant ideas of the new radicals reflected the atmosphere of the time. A patchwork of national liberation politics, Maoism, and Leninism played a considerable role in the New Left. However, in an era when official “Marxism” meant the suppressions of the Hungarian and Prague uprisings, many young radicals sought a “third way” that appropriated ideas from the anarchist tradition.

A crisis of theory in the United States
As the dominant politics of the New Left ebbed, anarchism developed more influence—by 1976, there was “the beginning of the large-scale, antinuclear, nonviolent direct action movement with the formation of the Clamshell Alliance,” writes Max Elbaum. “This movement captured the imagination of many young (white) people and—while undoubtedly radical—was much more influenced by anarchism and feminism than socialism or Marxism.”6

However, the political downturn of the Reagan and Thatcher era also marked a political retreat for anarchism. Many anarchists became disillusioned with “society” in general and especially the working class. A brand of cultural anarchism emerged in this period, with its own forms of social organization that were mostly disconnected from the broader political struggles.

The punk subculture remains the dominant iconography of anarchism in the 1980s. While the punk movement was highly critical of the crass indulgence of mainstream culture, it also remained highly sectarian, elitist, and insular. Much of the period’s songs and writings focused on the conservatism of working-class people, who were seen as brainwashed robots. Indeed, punk’s intense criticism of the earlier hippie culture concealed the ironic fact that the movement’s approach shared so much with the “drop out” aspects of hippiedom; its emphasis on an anti-work ethic, communal living, and a music-centered youth culture.

Some punk activists were able to counter the worst aspects of the movement’s elitism, developing innumerable offshoots and subgenres of the culture. The most political sections of the anarcho-punk movement centered on a core of political music, zines, and artists, focusing on abortion rights and anti-racist activism, and playing a prominent role in the development of Anti-Racist Action, which quickly grew into a training ground for a new layer of young radicals—though even in this period the movement retained its predominately white complexion.7

Most anarchists, however, refused to draw any organizational or political conclusions in this period. Instead, oppression was something to simply “reject,” as the influential zine Profane Existence declared, “As punks we reject our inherited race and class positions because we know they are bullshit. We want no part in oppressing others and we certainly want no part of Suburbia, our promised land.”8

By the end of the decade, anarchism had established itself as a provocative, radical opposition to the hegemony of pop culture and the suburban conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher’s worldview. At the same time, anarchist ideas were reduced to a tiny cultural milieu, stripped of virtually all class politics. In this context, anarchism emphasized the politics of the personal; veganism, interpersonal relations, and lifestyle choices, rather than revolutionary class politics.

The failure of anarchism to convincingly offer a coherent strategy for fighting oppression meant that many turned to variants of identity politics. Rather than a unified movement, this resulted in an increasingly disjointed residue of identity-based anarchisms; green anarchism, anarcha-feminism, anarchist people of color, queer anarchism, etc. Just as the new global justice movement was chalking up some early victories, anarchist organizations were disappearing.

A new global struggle—a new anarchism?
In 1994, the Zapatista uprising marked the beginning of a worldwide fight against the excesses of global capitalism. The growth of neoliberalism and global resistance had a profound effect on anarchism internationally. In the United States, where the few workplace fightbacks were largely isolated and beaten, the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization offered a militant, dynamic way of fighting and immediately became a touchstone for a revived anarchist movement. In this new context, the central discussion within anarchism was no longer about the nature of oppression. Instead, protest tactics became the immediate focus—how to recreate the success of Seattle during other meetings of world capitalist elites.

This new emphasis on street tactics marked a significant turn from debates on the roots of oppression. In fact, much of the global justice movement fostered an atmosphere hostile to political debate. Under the guise of building consensus, minority perspectives were systematically buried. While much of the movement was preoccupied with a “diversity of tactics,” little room was left to discuss the very real diversity of politics and ideas that existed in the movement. “The new movement did arrive, first in the pentecostal appearance of the Zapatistas in 1994, then in 1999 and after at Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, and Cancún,” explains Staughton Lynd in Wobblies and Zapatistas.

Moreover, mirabile dictu, it arrived not exactly with a theory, but at least with a rhetoric: the vocabulary of anarchism. Far be it from tell these splendid and heroic young people that they need more and better theory. I will just say that I am worried that in the absence of theory, many of those who protest in the streets today may turn out to be sprinters rather than long-distance runners.9

This evolving emphasis on practice over theory—and in some cases the elevation of tactics to the level of principle—exposes two problems for contemporary anarchism. First, the anarchist method was transformed into its raison d’être. The tactic itself became the goal.

Second, this represented a retreat from any goals-based, long-term strategy. As a result, anarchism was chiefly expressed in the concept of prefigurative politics, where anarchism’s method sought to prefigure an anarchist ideal of social relations.

In this scenario, the classic anarchist goal of destroying the state receded into the background. Instead, as Lynd describes the approach, the anarchist project “should be to nurture a horizontal network of self-governing institutions down below, to which whoever holds state power will learn they have to be obedient and accountable.”10

Prefigurative politics, of course, have always been part of the anarchist creed. “No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the means used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the purposes to be achieved,” wrote Emma Goldman.11 What is different about the new anarchism is that it ignores rather than challenges state power; instead of the means prefiguring the ends, the means have become the ends.

Agents of revolution? 
Much of the current anarchist strategy that turns away from confrontation with the state has been credited to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. With the rise of the global justice movement, their book Empire became a theoretical guide for many activists. This tendency maintained that modern capitalism negated the centrality of the nation-state. In the process, they argued, other centers of power and hegemony replaced the state’s role in exploitation, oppression, and social control. They pointed to the multinational corporations with power to shape government policies and international trade.

This tendency also signaled a shift away from class politics, or indeed that social classes in the Marxist (or classical anarchist) sense existed any longer. Hardt and Negri argued, instead, that a myriad of oppressions and exploitations could only be understood as a whole multitude. No longer, they argued, was class struggle the primary motor force of history. They highlighted the rebellions of indigenous communities, landless farmers, the urban poor, and others as examples of this new dynamic that, in their view, did not fit into the classical Marxist understanding of class struggle.

Although popularly understood as a recent contribution to anarchism, this move away from seeing the working class at the heart of an emancipatory project is not new. The ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote two decades earlier of a “growing recognition that the proletariat has become—and probably has always been—an organ of capitalist society, not a revolutionary agent gestating within its womb.” In place of the class struggle Bookchin argued for revolution as “a cultural project (or counterculture, if you will).”12

These critiques of a revolutionary working-class orientation typically combined with a mixture of postmodern ideas and viewed the working class as just another socially constructed identity. Even the Industrial Worker, newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World, known most recently for organizing Starbucks workers, argued in March 2009,

The emphasis on the individual identifying as a worker has many benefits in terms of promoting solidarity, but also poses some problems. For an individual to identify as solely a worker raises the dangerous specter of robotism. Hailed authors such as Antonio Negri (Empire) have referred to the modern radical as a cyborg, half human / half machine, tirelessly plugging away at work and activism with little room for emotion…Identifying as a “worker” can potentially play into the control mechanisms of society.13

This approach illustrates the central problem with contemporary anarchism’s understanding of the relationship between exploitation and oppression. While the state depends on a myriad of oppressions to maintain its rule, the working class has a very specific material relationship to the production of wealth—its labor is the lynchpin of capitalism.

Rather than playing “into the control mechanisms of society,” becoming conscious of one’s own class position is a requisite step in uniting with others who have similar class interests. Class consciousness is precisely what enables workers to understand their collective power and move beyond the isolation and alienation imposed by capitalism—quite the contrary to the “specter of robotism” that the IWW writer raises. Naturally, socialists seek to extend that consciousness beyond trade unionism, to encompass a commitment to challenge all forms of oppression upon which capitalism depends. But class solidarity is the foundation of such a development.

Supplementing the new social theory of Empire and multitude was a strategy best articulated by John Holloway in his book, Change the World Without Taking Power. Frequently referred to as anti-power or counter-hegemony, these ideas advocate a strategy that consciously negates state-oriented struggle. Hence, activists should not seek to overthrow the state, take over the state, or even make demands on the state. State-oriented strategies, it argues, only serve to legitimize the state (as the power that grants rights and freedoms) or willingly accept the hegemony of the state by protesting in ways that are expected and accepted.

It is this analysis that informs the political approach of the “occupy everything, demand nothing” anarchists who have popped up around the March 4, 2010, anti-budget cuts protests centered in California, but which had some resonance elsewhere. A group of anarchists in California, for example, defended the idea of demanding nothing:

We must reject all options on offer and demonstrate that without negotiations, it is still possible to act. That is why we do not make demands. All demands assume the existence of a power capable of conceding them. We know this power does not exist. Why go through the motions of negotiating when we know we will not win anything but paltry concessions? Better to reveal the nature of the situation: there is no power to which we can appeal except that which we have found in one another.14

Rather than demanding jobs and opposing cutbacks, the anarchists championed “excitement,” and the power we “find in one another” that is yet too powerless to exact concessions from the state. To formulate demands requires a political process of generalization involving other student militants in the movement—an attempt to devise strategies and tactics that build up the movement’s forces in order to exercise the maximum pressure on states and officials that, despite the anarchist rhetoric, really do have the power to make concessions. The anarchists, though, operated autonomously, they were unaccountable and represented only themselves and so could not formulate a coherent set of demands—indeed, they did not wish to. In fact, while much of the student resistance in California mobilized broadly and with a clear purpose, the “demand nothing” anarchists proved remarkably ineffective in moving the struggle forward.

All of these proposals to make a “revolution” without actually challenging the state are radical sounding, but are based on the acceptance of the state—the very institution that possesses the monopoly of coercive means necessary to maintain capitalist social relations.

The idea of eluding rather than smashing state power isn’t entirely new. The anarchist Gustav Landauer wrote in 1910,

One can throw away a chair and destroy a pane of glass; but [only] idle talkers...regard the state as such a thing or as a fetish that one can smash in order to destroy it. The state is a condition, a certain relationship among human beings, a mode of behavior between men; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another.… We are the state, and we shall continue to be the state until we have created the institutions that form a real community and society.15

Ultimately, the anarchist dismissal of the working class’s revolutionary agency is matched by the dismissal of revolution itself. By accepting the state’s existence, anarchists at best doom themselves to operate as a pressure group on the state, or at worst, retreat into utopian experiments (“behaving differently toward one another”) that pose no serious challenge to capitalism or to the state.

Contemporary forms of anarchism 
Although anarchism continues to appropriate ideas and methods from other political traditions, its fundamental problems remain unresolved. What is the relationship between class exploitation and oppression? What is the nature of state power and how can it be destroyed? Within the movement, five trends in particular exert an influence and contend for anarchism’s future. Confusingly, these trends are not always easily discernible or mutually exclusive. More often than not, these disparate tendencies are interwoven, overlapping when tactically useful or selectively applied extemporaneously.

Insurrectionary anarchism. Perhaps the most visible trend is insurrectionary anarchism, whose vandalism and rioting make exciting press. This trend was especially revitalized within the international demonstrations of the global justice movement, and has gained some notoriety recently with the publication (and translation) of a French text written by a group called “The Invisible Committee,” entitled The Coming Insurrection.16 It claims that traditional social and labor movements work to reinforce state power by participating in forms of protest that are acceptable to the status quo. The insurrectionists use black bloc and other tactics to expose the hegemony of state power (and its control over “mainstream” protests). A recent position paper for the Institute for Anarchist Studies’ Perspectives outlines the purposes of black bloc tactics:

Anarchists and anti-authoritarians who march in a black bloc threaten the ability of the state to regulate bodies during protest. If the peacekeepers refused to endorse spatial regulations and control, the police would have to increase their presence and visible control of the protest. This enlarged presence would give the appearance of a more threatening state and further visualize its power…. The black bloc has challenged the hegemonic mechanisms of control as used by both mainstream protest organizers and the state.17

This is a cold recipe to provoke police violence on other activists. To be sure, the state will mobilize armed force to control social protest—our movements do not need special tactics to elicit police violence—we need more people on our side of the struggle. Sometimes, confronting the police is necessary to win, or to defend our movement. But the insurrectionists prefer to visualize “a more threatening state” rather than the power of social movements.

The insurrectionists have highlighted the tactics used by Greek anarchists over the course of the last two years in street battles against police brutality and government austerity. In the wake of the Greek protests, a great deal of debate has emerged over protest tactics. The mobilization against the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh widened the debate in the United States. On the one hand, CrimethInc. opined,

It has been said that the demonstrations of the past decade have functioned as a sort of inoculation for the police state: without ever seriously threatening it, they have provoked it to develop a much more powerful immune system. Yet it may be that this police state has also bred a tougher breed of anarchist, too, the way that new strains of virus evolve that are immune to existing vaccines.18

This affinity for street fighting is wearing thin for some anarchists, though. In a popular article posted to Indymedia, Ryan Harvey articulated the thoughts of anarchists growing weary of the bad romance with batons and tear gas:

I am no longer lending my support to these acts if they are not solidly rooted in an organizational and movement-wide foundation, supported by large numbers of people who understand their purpose and the steps to take afterwards. If we are “stepping it up” or “escalating” without the massive numbers of people that we were previously standing with, we are losing people, and are thus destined to fail. I don’t want to be in a people-less movement, I want to build strong movements that can take bold and seemingly dangerous steps together, growing as they move forward. This can justify the risk.19

Harvey understands the uselessness of street fights that aren’t connected to larger, confident organizations and movements, as well as goals that shape the tactics. But the insurrectionists have absconded with this occasional tactic of social movements and elevated it to the level of ideological principle. Rather than emboldening and empowering the mass forces whose self-activity are at the heart of any successful struggle, these elitist, provocative tactics accomplish little more than offering an excuse for the state to justify its violence against social movements.

Post-leftism. Some anarchists draw a stark contrast between themselves and others on the left—even declaring that real anarchism must consider itself outside the left. As the Chicago-based Brick Collective wrote in 2003, “Roughly speaking we would divide the resistance into two camps: 1) authoritarian, and 2) autonomous and anarchist. The differences between the two general approaches and visions are significant, and cannot be bridged by a shared militancy. In fact, as anarchist revolutionaries, antifascists, and radical feminists we understand our situation as a three-way fight. Them, Them, and Us.”20

According to this creed, the main division in society is not between classes, nor even between oppressor and oppressed, but between those who are “authoritarian” and those who are “anti-authoritarian.” Taken at face value, this means that the Brick Collective sees other individuals and organizations on the left, even if they are fighting for the same things (for example, against the war in Iraq or a G-8 summit), as enemies to be opposed every bit as much as the state. This sectarianism, in which these anarchists hold themselves to be the only “true” rebels, naturally puts them in a posture whereby they claim no accountability to other forces in the movement.

In its most extreme form, it gives them permission (in their own minds) to disrupt the activities and organizations that they consider “authoritarian.” So, for example, a group of anarchists associated with a blog called “Take the City,” which denounced “the I.S.O., maoist allies, & activist ‘organizers’” on New York’s Hunter College campus as a “reformist bloc” and the “vanguard of submission,” disrupted protests and physically attacked activists at Hunter College in New York City during a protest on March 4 against budget cuts.21

The writer Bob Black helped to popularize post-leftism as the logical conclusions of anarchism and counter-hegemony. In targeting state hegemony, he includes the entire left, workers, and even anarchists as part of the problem,

The “real enemy” is the totality of physical and mental constraints by which capital, or class society, or statism, or the society of the spectacle expropriates everyday life, the time of our lives…. The totality is the organization of all against each and each against all. It includes all the policemen, all the social workers, all the office workers, all the nuns, all the op-ed columnists, all the drug kingpins from Medellin to Upjohn, all the syndicalists and all the situationists.22

Similar to the Brick Collective’s “Them, Them, and Us” strategy, this type of anarchist theorizing means that everything is a valid target and thus, opposition can assume any form. In their now infamous pamphlet, The Coming Insurrection, The Invisible Committee writes, “Becoming autonomous could just as easily mean learning to fight in the street, to occupy empty houses, to cease working, to love each other madly, and to shoplift.”23 The anonymous authors of this text ask their readers to “Sabotage every representative authority…. Abolish general assemblies.”24

While post-leftism exerts some influence on contemporary anarchism, it plays less of an influence in the wider social movements, specifically because it ultimately disengages its followers from activism. More often, post-left anarchists are to be found within cultural cliques far removed from political struggle, and they partake in frantically developing critiques of everything in sight. Typically, the post-leftists fetishize form at the expense of content with radical-sounding phraseology that conceals empty ideas. The Institute for Experimental Freedom’s journal, Politics is Not a Banana, typifies this:

We could give a fuck about the War or Hillary or Obama. None of this changes $6.50 plus tips, our rotting teeth, or all our combined STDs. We want conflict, we want the heads of those whiny little pundits on all TV stations. We want doctors tied up in the basement. We want erect nipples and just a fair amount of blood. Yeah, and roses too.25

Since post-leftism positions itself outside and opposed to the left, it plays the most reactionary role within anarchism. Unaccountable to anyone but themselves, post-leftist tactics have served to disrupt and disorient fresh activist movements. On the ideological level, post-leftism is more closely related with the bizarre formulations of the so-called anarcho-capitalists and national anarchists. Indeed, many do not consider the post-leftists to be anarchists at all. Yet, the “three-way fight” politics continue to permeate the anarchist movement.

Social movement anarchism.The Israeli anarchist Uri Gordon describes contemporary anarchism as one that is “[l]argely discontinuous with the historical workers’ and peasants’ anarchist movement.”26 The organic connections with classical anarchism have been severed, he argues, and instead,

[T]he mainsprings of today’s anarchism can be found in the intersection of several trends of social criticism and struggle whose beginnings were never consciously “anarchist”—in particular the cross-issue formulations of radical ecology, the waves of militant feminism, black and queer liberation movements, and the anti-neoliberal internationalism launched by movements in the global South, most celebrated of which are the Mexican Zapatistas.27

Conversely, as these non-anarchist ideas have grown in influence, traditional methods of anarchist organization have declined. For instance, the consensus decision-making models common among anarchist organizations and collectives are not a significant aspect of traditional anarchism, but evolved from the interactions with pacifists in the anti-nuclear movement. For some, the consensus process has become a principle of organizing, yet many anarchists have historically rejected it as elitist and fundamentally undemocratic. In his classic polemic against lifestylism, Murray Bookchin makes an important point about the consensus model,

If anything, functioning on the basis of consensus assures that important decision-making will be either manipulated by a minority or collapse completely. And the decisions that are made will embody the lowest common denominator of views and constitute the least creative level of agreement. I speak, here, from painful, years-long experience with the use of consensus in the Clamshell Alliance of the 1970s. Just at the moment when this quasi-anarchic antinuclear-power movement was at the peak of its struggle, with thousands of activists, it was destroyed through the manipulation of the consensus process by a minority. The “tyranny of structurelessness” that consensus decision-making produced permitted a well-organized few to control the unwieldy, deinstitutionalized, and largely disorganized many within the movement.28

Anarchism, in Uri Gordon’s view, is a diverse political culture—comprised of fragments appropriated from various social movements, no matter how contradictory. In this context, social movement anarchism embraces even the most liberal of political traditions, and sheds all pretense to fundamental social transformation. “Perhaps the most prominent feature of the new anarchist formulation,” he writes, “is the generalization of the target of anarchist resistance from the state and capitalism to all forms of domination in society.”29

Contrasted to the insurrectionary and post-left variants of anarchism, social movement anarchism seeks to build a broader left and stronger social movements. It is this trend of social movement anarchism that has the widest appeal to activists in the United States. In the context of a weak political culture, a moribund labor movement, and a fragmented left after decades of the bosses’ offensive, it is not uncommon for activists to call themselves “sort of an anarchist” or “closest to anarchism.” In fact, this looser, all-inclusive interpretation of anarchism—the “new school”—represents the most diffuse and liberal wing of anarchist thought.

Class-struggle anarchism/anarcho-syndicalism. For decades, class struggle has been treated with indifference or outright contempt by anarchists. However, the workers’ occupation at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors factory during the first week of December 2008 inspired radicals everywhere, including anarchists. Black banners on Chicago’s 2009 May Day demonstration read, “Republic Workers Show the Way!” In more general terms, the Great Recession provides a backdrop to questions of class and class inequality coming to the fore among a greater number of anarchists.

In their book Black Flame, South African anarchists Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt seek to redefine anarchism as an explicit set of revolutionary politics centered on the struggle of the working class, placing syndicalism at the keystone of the anarchist edifice. Their contribution to the debate is a departure from most of the recent works that accept an all-inclusive understanding of what constitutes anarchism, and is very much a polemic against the more liberal trends of anarchist thought.

It is our view that the term anarchism should be reserved for a particular rationalist and revolutionary form of libertarian socialism.... Anarchism favor of an international class struggle and revolution from below by a self-organized working class and peasantry in order to create a self-managed, socialist, and stateless social order.30

The authors write out of the movement any anarchists who did not put the class struggle at the center of their politics, including Pierre Joseph Proudhon (considered by many to be the father of anarchism), as well as the extreme individualists Max Stirner and Benjamin Tucker. “The anarchist movement,” they argue, “only emerged in the 1860s, and then as a wing of the modern labor and socialist movement.”31 needs of the small independent farmers and craftspeople.”32 Narrowing what they consider anarchism at one end, they expand it at the other by including syndicalists in the socialist tradition such as Daniel DeLeon, James Connolly, and Big Bill Haywood as part of the “broad” anarchist tradition.

Despite the authors’ claims, however, anarchism cannot arbitrarily be reduced to its revolutionary class-struggle wing. Syndicalism has not always been the centerpiece of anarchism, nor are all anarchists in favor of syndicalism. In a discussion with Spanish anarchists in 1926, the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta argued,

I am against syndicalism, both as a doctrine and a practice, because it strikes me as a hybrid creature that puts its faith, not necessarily in reformism…but in classist exclusiveness and authoritarianism. I favor the labor movement because I believe it to be the most effective way of raising the morale of the workers.… At the same time I am well aware that, setting out as it does to protect the short-term interests of the workers, it tends naturally to reformism and cannot, therefore, be confused with the anarchist movement itself.33

Certainly not all of the IWW members, known as Wobblies, considered themselves anarchists. On the contrary, many of them, like Big Bill Haywood, were active socialists and later joined the Communist Party. Syndicalism is an historic expression of working-class organization where the established labor bureaucracies (and mass reformist socialist parties) have become too entrenched to fight in the interests of workers. In this context, workers have organized themselves into industrial and other unions as an alternative, and both anarchists and revolutionary socialists disenchanted by the failures and betrayals of parliamentary socialism and craft “business” unionism have turned to syndicalism as an alternative.

While it can be demonstrated that the heart of Marxism (as opposed to the socialist movement more broadly) is working-class self-emancipation, anarchism is a much broader church from which certain wings can only be expelled arbitrarily, not because of something intrinsic to anarchist theory. Nevertheless, the popularity among anarchists of Schmidt and Van der Walt’s book—arguing as it does for a revolutionary politics rooted in the class struggle—is a very welcome development.

Platformism. Platformism is once again a topic of discussion within the anarchist movement. Initiated by exiled Russian anarchists in the wake of the 1917 revolution, this movement owes its name to its founding document, “The Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists.” Published in 1926, the platform attracted a number of anarchists from around Russia, but failed to gain much significant support elsewhere. Among the most notable were Peter Arshinov, a former Bolshevik, and Nestor Makhno, the anarchist guerrilla leader.

Displeased with the ineffectiveness of international anarchism and its marginal role in the Russian Revolution, “The Organizational Platform” declared,

There can be no doubt, however, that this disorganization [of revolutionary anarchism] has its roots in a number of defects of theory, notably in the distorted interpretation of the principle of individuality in anarchism, that principle being too often mistaken for the absence of accountability…. We have a vital need of an organization which, having attracted most of the participants in the anarchist movement, would establish a common tactical and political line for anarchism and thereby serve as a guide for the whole movement.34

Platformism enjoyed minimal influence in the wider anarchist movement after its publication, playing a negligible role, for example, in the Spanish Revolution. In the midst of the 1990s global justice movement, it was rediscovered out of frustration with the mainstream of the anarchist movement. In 1996, the anarchist organization Love and Rage noted of the Platformists that, “their critique of the organizational failings of the anarchist movement and call for the measures necessary to correct those failings have lost none of their resonance. Their organizational principles are simple and sensible, but they are a stake through the heart of anti-organizational anarchism.”35

Although short-lived, the Russian Revolution provided a powerful example of workers’ power before its bureaucratic degeneration. As revolutionaries around the world identified with the Bolsheviks and formed new Communist Parties, the influence of anarchism began to decline. Platformism represented an attempt, from within anarchism, to solve the long-term weaknesses of the tradition around questions of organization, theory, and practice, challenging the traditional anarchist hostility to political action and political parties.

Another anarchist trend, influenced by platformism, is known as “social insertion,” orespecifismo in Latin America. It is committed to building strong social movements, but moves away from more diffuse anarchist concepts of organization. Social insertion anarchism calls for “specifically anarchist organization built around a unity of ideas and praxis,” which “inserts” itself into the mass movements of the working class and the oppressed in order to give them direction. Especifismo criticizes the looser, more individualist and liberal anarchist collectives “for being driven by spontaneity and individualism and for not leading to the serious, systematic work needed to build revolutionary movements.”36 Social insertion puts an emphasis on collective “discipline between militants,” a “collective responsibility to the organizations’ plans and work,” and on the necessity of developing a common program and strategy based on “rigorous analysis of society and the correlation of the forces that are part of it.” Though politically especifismo remains anarchist in its opposition to “vanguards” and to electoral politics,” this trend comes close to more Marxist conceptions of revolutionary organization.37

Anarchism and state power 
If classical anarchism called for the abolition of the capitalist state, contemporary anarchism attempts to resolve the problem of state power by going around it, as we have already noted. It claims to do this by creating space independent of authoritarian control by establishing autonomous zones. Hakim Bey’s “The Temporary Autonomous Zone” has become one of the classics of modern anarchism. In this series of essays, Bey outlines an anarchy that has abandoned the necessity of social revolution. His vision of human liberation is one of serial rebellions, each for its own sake. The fundamentals of human liberation lie inside the temporary space created by each act of rebellion:

You will argue that this is a counsel of despair. What of the anarchist dream, the Stateless state, the Commune, the autonomous zone with duration, a free society, a free culture?... [R]ealism demands not only that we give up waiting for “the Revolution” but also that we give up wanting it. “Uprising,” yes—as often as possible and even at the risk of violence…. [B]ut in most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.38

Bey argues that the temporary autonomous zone must “evade the violence of the State” rather than challenge it.

Confusion over state power remains the long-standing problem for the anarchist tradition. At the high points of struggle, anarchism has been confronted forcefully with this question: if anarchists reject power, then who fills the vacuum left by the destruction of the old state? During the Spanish Revolution, the Catalan anarchists remained true to their principles by refusing power, and thereby leaving it in the hands of the bourgeois parties. In Spain as a whole, leading anarchists simply cast their principles aside and entered the bourgeois republican government.39

But if anarchism is still to be a vision of a new society rather than simply accommodation with the old, it must tackle the question of power. Clearly, autonomous zones do not challenge capitalism or the state. However, assuming for a moment that the “horizontal networks of self-governing institutions” that anarchists seek to create become widespread and broadly effective, then the existing state’s power is necessarily threatened (the ability to regulate trade, maintain “special bodies of armed men,” enacting and enforcing laws, etc.) Consequently, any successful revolutionary movement will immediately run into the state’s opposition and one of the two forces must emerge victorious from the resulting struggle; the two cannot exist in harmonious balance indefinitely.

Examining the experiences of the English, French, and Russian Revolutions, Leon Trotsky described this phenomenon of “dual power” that arises during revolutions:

This double sovereignty does not presuppose—generally speaking, indeed, it excludes—the possibility of a division of the power into two equal halves, or indeed any formal equilibrium of forces whatever.... It implies that a destruction of the social equilibrium has already split the state superstructure. It arises when the hostile classes are already each relying upon essentially incompatible governmental organizations—the one outlived, the other in process of formation—which jostle against each other at every step in the sphere of government. The amount of power which falls to each of these struggling classes in such a situation, is determined by the correlation of forces in the course of the struggle.... By its very nature such a state of affairs cannot be stable.... The splitting of sovereignty foretells nothing less than a civil war.40

Failing to grasp this simple fact of revolution, the anarchists wish away the demands of history, as if the state will either simply evaporate or become somehow irrelevant—with no alternative prepared to fill the needs of reconstructing society.

To break the ruling class’s control of production, the working class must seize and exercise its own control. This requires a way to make democratic decisions and enforce them. “Would the Paris Commune have lasted a single day if it had not made use of this authority of the armed people against the bourgeois?” Engels asked the anti-authoritarians of his day.41

The collective use of this authority is the substance of workers’ power and its historical expression is the workers’ state. If classical anarchism failed to answer the question of what is to replace the state after it is destroyed, contemporary anarchism avoids the question altogether—and certainly the ruling institutions of society will happily ignore whatever “autonomous” organizations fail to challenge them.

The social basis of anarchism 
Anarchism began its life as a philosophical reaction to the oppressive growth of early capitalism. Essentially rooted in liberal, enlightenment thought, anarchism’s social basis lay in the small craft and artisanal classes—what Marx called the petty bourgeoisie, then being eradicated with the growth of industrialism. The anarchist Albert Metzler agrees with Marx’s assessment of anarchism’s birth.

Anarchism, said Marx, was the movement of the artisan worker—that is to say, the self-employed craftsman with some leisure to think and talk, not subjected to factory hours and discipline, independently-minded and difficult to threaten, not backward like the peasantry.… As the capitalist technique spread throughout the world, the artisans were ruined and driven into the factories. It is these individual craftsmen entering industrialization who became Anarchists, pointed out successive Marxists. They are not conditioned to factory discipline which produces good order, unlike a proletariat prepared to accept a leadership and a party, and to work forever in the factory provided it comes under State control…. It should be the task of an Anarchist union movement to seize the factories, but only in order to break down mass production and get back to craftsmanship. This is what Marx meant by a “petit bourgeois” outlook.42

Here, we see one of anarchism’s chief characteristics; the political ideology of a ruined class reinterpreted to fit new objective situations, but only to advance the return to some previous mode of social organization (“to break down mass production and get back to craftsmanship,” as Metzler argues.)

As the social basis of anarchism withers in one historical period, it acquires a new social base. For instance, John Holloway has discussed how the traditional ejidos of Mexico are the social basis of Zapatismo. Gordon discusses the role of subculture in the anarchist tradition. “Besides initiating multiple spaces of alternative cultural and social reproduction—from communes and squats to festivals and ’zines,” he writes, “subcultures also provided the radical activism with a more rooted social base from which to operate, replacing the declining position of traditional working class communities in this role.”

Because of its shifting social basis, and because its core ideas are based around absolutes (antiauthoritarianism), anarchism is acutely affected by the broader forms of social struggle and the objective balance of class forces. We saw this in the First International, as industrial organization and struggle increased, anarchists were brought toward the communists on issues such as private property. Even for Bakunin, Karl Marx’s analysis of capitalism was far superior to anything else. “Nothing that I know of,” Bakunin wrote of Marx’s Capital, “contains an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive and if I can express it thus, so merciless an exposé of the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that capital continues exercising over the work of the proletariat.”43

These shifts in the social basis of anarchism explain its many nuanced and contradictory perspectives (class versus “multitude”; violence versus nonviolence; individualism versus collectivism; mass struggle versus withdrawal into autonomous zones; and so on). Further, the class struggle does not simply resolve the basic contradictions within anarchism. Instead, anarchism has resorted to nonanarchist ideas in an attempt to resolve questions of oppression and state power. The Russian Revolution itself illustrates this dynamic, when many anarchists were pulled toward Bolshevism, as the anarchist historian Paul Avrich writes, “A variety of opinions soon emerged, ranging from active resistance to the Bolsheviks, through passive neutrality, to eager collaboration. Some anarchists even joined the Communist Party. In the end, a large majority gave varying degrees of support to the beleaguered regime.”44

After several decades of the bosses’ offensive and retreats by the labor movement and political left, anarchism continues to offer a radical alternative for those sickened by the state of the world. No doubt, many of the revolutionary left’s most dedicated activists identify with the anarchist tradition and continue to make important contributions to the fight against oppression. In light of the many official distortions of Marxism, these anarchists have represented Marxism better than some of the so-called Marxists.45

The fundamentals of Marxism are about full and complete human liberation—not so different from anarchist aspirations. As Marx once wrote, “All socialists see anarchy as the following program: Once the aim of the proletarian movement — i.e., abolition of classes — is attained, the power of the state, which serves to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a very small exploiter minority, disappears, and the functions of government become simple administrative functions.”46 The differences are over the road to liberation.

However, political differences do exist, particularly over the means to achieve human liberation, and what social forces or classes can accomplish it. Contemporary anarchism has some important differences, but also a great deal of continuity, with historical anarchism. Where it focuses on building an alternative in the “interstices” of capitalism, it accommodates to, rather than challenges, capitalism; and where it fetishizes street tactics, it generates more press than tangible success in either building the struggle or in challenging the state.

But struggle teaches, and those anarchists most engaged in struggle and most concerned with finding the most effective means of winning a better world are looking for alternative ideas to make sense of the crises around us. Marxists and these anarchists should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in every aspect of struggle, whether fighting evictions, the far right, or budget cuts. And serious revolutionaries must consider what tactics will strengthen the movement and its chances of victory. Foolish acts of vandalism by unaccountable individuals only serve to disrupt and weaken the movement, and the best anarchists recognize this. “When we want to occupy,” write some anarchists criticizing the disruptive actions of a group of anarchists at the Hunter College March 4 action, “let’s reach out to those who might want to occupy too, so there’s a chance they might occupy with us.”47

We need social movements that are confident, democratic, and dynamic. We also need radical political organizations that continue to press forward with tactics and ideas, winning other activists to a revolutionary perspective that puts the working class at the center of its project. The ongoing crisis of capitalism, and the developing class response from below, should help propel more anarchists in this direction. There’s a world to win—let’s demand everything.

  1. Bruce Crumley, “Could Greece’s Riots Spread to France?” Time, December 15, 2008.
  2. Christopher Hope, Kurt Jones, and Gordon Rayner, “G20 Protests: Anarchist Fears over Put People First March,” Telegraph, March 28, 2009.
  3. See “Demand Nothing, Occupy Everything,”
  4. “Anarchism finds its first and most well-known expression in India with Mahatma Gandhi’s statement, ‘the state evil is not the cause but the effect of social evil, just as the sea-waves are the effect not the cause of the storm. The only way of curing the disease is by removing the cause itself…the state is perfect and non-violent where the people are governed the least. The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on non-violence.” Jason Adams, Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context (Soweto, South Africa: Zabalaza Books, 2003), 13. To give a sense of the disparate views of these individuals: Stirner was a mid-eighteenth century individualist anarchist; Tolstoy was a pacifist, Christian anarchist; Thoreau advocated civil disobedience against injustice; Bakunin was a “collectivist anarchist” who favored violent revolution; and Zerzan is a “primitivist,” advocating a rejection of modern technology.
  5. Bob Black, “My Anarchism Problem,”
  6. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air (London: Verso Press, 2002), 222.
  7. Roy San Filippo, ed., A New World in Our Hearts: Eight Years of Writings from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2003), 84.
  8. Quoted in Emilie Hardman, “Before You Can Get Off Your Knees: Profane Existence and Anarcho-Punk as a Social Movement,”
  9. Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History (Oakland, Calif.: PM Press, 2008), 42.
  10. Ibid., 50.
  11. Emma Goldman, “My Further Disillusionment in Russia,” 1924,
  12. Murray Bookchin, “Anarchism: Past and Present,” May 29, 1980,
  13. Chris Agenda, “Crisis is Time for IWW Ideas, Organizing,” Industrial Worker, March–April 2009.
  14. “A more radical proposal: demand nothing, occupy everything,”
  15. Gustav Landauer, “Schwache Stattsminner, Schwacheres Volk,” Der Sozialist, June 1910.
  16. The text of The Coming Insurrection can be found here:
  17. Sabrina Alimahomed and Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, “Protest as Embodied State Practices: An Examination of Hegemonic and Counter-Hegemonic Protest Tactics,”
  18. 18 “G20 Mobilization: A Preliminary Assessment,” CrimethInc. Ex-Workers’ Collective,
  19. Ryan Harvey, “Are We Addicted to Rioting?” September 27, 2009,
  20. “Above and Below: Them, Them, and Us,” Brick Anarchist Collective, 2003,
  21. See “For a Movement That Unites Us,” statement by fourteen Hunter College activists about the disruption of protests by anarchists, See also “Beware Those Who Would Deliver You to a Cheaper Suicide,”
  22. Black, “My Anarchism Problem.”
  23. The Coming Insurrection, 27.
  24. Ibid., 80.
  25. Politics is Not a Banana, The Institute for Experimental Freedom,
  26. Uri Gordon, Anarchism and Political Theory: Contemporary Problems (University of Oxford Mansfield College doctoral thesis, 2005), 3.
  27. Ibid., 76.
  28. Murray Bookchin, “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm,”
  29. Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 37.
  30. Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2009), 52.
  31. “We reject the view that figures like William Godwin (1756–1836), Max Stirner (1806–1856), Proudhon, Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939), and Leo Tolstoy are part of the broad anarchist tradition,” in ibid., 9.
  32. Ibid., 84–85.
  33. Errico Malatesta, “Further Thoughts on Anarchism and the Labor Movement,” March 1926,
  34. “The Organizational Platform of the General Union of Anarchists,” 1926,
  35. Roy San Filippo, A World in Our Hearts—Eight Years of Writings from the Love and Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Federation, 44–45.
  36. Adam Weaver, “Especifismo, The Anarchist Praxis of Building Popular Movements and Revolutionary Organization in South America,”
  37. Quoted in Ibid.
  38. Hakim Bey, “The Temporary Autonomous Zone,”
  39. For a description of the role anarchists played in the Spanish Civil War, see Geoff Bailey, “Anarchists in the Spanish Civil War,” ISR 24, July–August 2002,
  40. Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 207–08,
  41. Engels, “On Authority,” 1872,
  42. Albert Metzler, Anarchism: Arguments For and Against (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2000), 65–66.
  43. Michael Bakunin, “The Capitalist System,” 1871,
  44. Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Boston: AK Press, 2005), 196.
  45. For instance, “In this controversy it is Pannekoek, not Kautsky, who represented Marxism, for it was Marx who taught that it is not enough for the proletariat simply to conquer state power…but that the proletariat must break up, smash this apparatus and replace it with a new one,” Vladimir Lenin, State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1990), 95.
  46. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Fictitious Splits in the International,” in Marx, Engels, Lenin, Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 74.
  47. “A movement that stands for childcare, healthcare, and education for everyone means more to most people than slogans shouted by those who are ‘pushed by the violence of our desires’ to act as individuals. A statement with that phrase as its title, written by some folks involved in the altercation at Hunter, claims, ‘We do not need the “consent of the people.”’ But militant direct action needs to take place within the context of a movement, not outside of it. To single-handedly declare that a protest is not radical enough without participating in the democratic processes of the movement is vanguardist. It’s ironic—and tragic—when it comes from anarchists. When we want to occupy, let’s reach out to those who might want to occupy too, so there’s a chance they might occupy with us.” “The Politics of Impatience: An Open Letter from Anarchists to the Anarchist Movement,” April 12, 2010,



Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John