(Eng) Issues for Anarchism

Tue, 29 Oct 1996 16:29:20 +1000


Why is the anarchist movement today not more powerful than it is? In so
many ways the current period looks like anarchism's historical moment.
Indeed, if anarchism is not capable of growing in this current period one
wonders if it will ever be capable of it. Authoritarian socialism has been
completely discredited and yet capitalism continues to produce war, misery
and exploitation and to degrade the biosphere to the point that it is a
real question as to whether human life will remain possible. Talking to
people in Australia it is obvious that, although they have accepted the
ruling class thesis that socialism is dead, they have absolutely no faith
in capitalism or any of the existing political institutions to meet their
needs or deal with the urgent problems that they admit exist. You'd think,
then, that they'd be very receptive to the ideas of anarchism.

Yet the years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall have not seen the
growth of the anarchist movement that we might perhaps have expected. In
particular it has not seen the growth of an organised anarchist political
movement. This latter fact is especially troubling. The question of
organisation is THE question for anarchists today, for two reasons.
Firstly, because if we don't get organised anarchists will never constitute
a serious political force, let alone one which might be able to work
towards the revolution necessary to create anarchy. But secondly, a
contemporary anarchism must confront the reality of modern urban
post-industrial society, which is that such a society cannot function
without organisation - organisation on a large scale. If we think anarchy
is possible today it means that we think it is possible in such a society
or at least in a society which might conceivably emerge out of the
revolutionary transformation of such a society. We can no longer point to
networks or federations of villages or peasant communities as a model for
the future. We need to demonstrate to people that it is possible to
organise a modern post-industrial society without recourse to authority.
To my mind, anarchism *is* the belief that it is possible to organise
effectively and efficiently without authority or hierarchy. Unless you
believe this you don't believe that anarchy is ever really a possibility.
Our ability to organise ourselves is thus a crucial test of the ideals that
we advocate. How can we tell people that it is possible to organise a
modern urban society along anarchist lines when committed anarchists are
not even capable of organising to promote their ideas and produce a

So why aren't (more) anarchists organising? Why is it so hard to convince
even active anarchists that they should organise nationally?

At least part of the reason is the individualism which still haunts the
anarchist movement. Too many people, including some who would call
themselves anarchists, think that anarchy means that "everyone can do what
they want". The collective and socialistic aspects of anarchism have been
deliberately down played by its enemies and neglected by many of its
adherents. Sadly, many people still believe the old myth that anarchist
organisation is a contradiction in terms. So one of our first priorities
in our dealings with those who are not (yet) anarchists or who know little
about anarchism is to combat the lie that anarchists are opposed to
organisation. And I can't emphasise too much how important I think this
is. Without the idea of organised collective struggle anarchism just
becomes another version of liberalism. Revolutionary anarchists must
constantly emphasise that anarchists must *organise* to overthrow

It would also be productive in this regard I believe to experiment with
re-presenting anarchism in terms of our collective responsibility not to
oppress or exploit others rather than in terms of an individual's right to
maximal liberty. That is, perhaps we should consider emphasising
anarchism's nature as a genuinely democratic form of (non state) socialism
rather than starting simply from the critique of the state. This would at
least clearly identify anarchism as an anti-authoritarian element of the
socialist tradition and make it harder for libertarians to claim anarchism
as a right wing ideology. The danger of course with this approach is that
so many people think that all socialism is discredited and thus may reject
out of hand an anarchism which is self evidently socialist in form. But it
might be worth a try.

Unfortunately, it further seems to me that the failure of anarchist
organisations to grow is not simply the result of a failure to adequately
direct propaganda at those outside of the anarchist movement. It is also
the result of failure to take questions about organisation seriously in our
own movement. There is, in fact, a poverty of successful contemporary
working models of large scale anarchist organisations. Until we can point
to such as examples of how it is possible to organise without authority and
hierarchy, others will naturally tend to be sceptical about our propaganda

So what factors have contributed to this failure to organise within the
movement? The first thing which needs to be said is that the task of
organisation without hierarchy is a difficult one. From birth we are
brought up to rely on authority and to turn to it whenever a social problem
arises. But this is no excuse for those of us whose politics is founded on
the faith that social life without authority is possible. The second
factor is, I believe, that anarchists have often allowed their (justified)
fear of authority and centralisation to overwhelm their desire to organise.
This has been, it seems to me, a tragic error. Every history of anarchist
struggle that I have read has mentioned the failure of anarchists to be
sufficiently well organised as a major factor in their failure to make the
most of the opportunities they had available to them. Yet seldom does one
read of anarchist organisations failing due to an excess of structure and
organisation. In any case, it appears to me that the anarchist movement
today suffers far more from a failure to be well organised than any
tendency towards authoritarianism and centralisation. So we would be well
advised to concentrate more on the urgent need to get organised and worry
less about the dangers it may involve. We can worry about them when they
occur. Finally, and not unrelated to the above points, there has been a
failure, in anarchist circles, to move from an abstract commitment to
organisation and collective action to discussion of questions of actual
organisational structure. Even where the theoretical need for organisation
has been acknowledged it seems to me that there has often been a lack of
attention paid to the details of how best to organise without authority and
how well various alternative structures fare in practice. What works and
what doesn't? What is the best constitution for an anarchist federation?
What is the best meeting procedure for anarchists? How large can anarchist
groups grow in practice without generating hierarchy? I do not believe
that these questions and many more like them have been adequately resolved.
Because existing anarchist organisations are usually small, it is too easy
to rely on informal networks of activist friends to get things done. Even
where structures exist they often bear little relation to the actual
operations of the groups. But the criticisms made in "The Tyranny of
Structurelessness" remain valid. A failure to work through open and
explicit organisational structures all too often leads to the development
of a de facto hierarchy in the form of domination by a self elected clique.

Thus within our own movement we need to redouble our efforts to organise
and to develop working models of anarchist organisational structures. An
important part of this task is developing an analysis of why previous and
existing models have failed.


Another reason for the failure of anarchism to grow in this recent period
is that anarchism has a tendency to slip into utopianism. Too often
anarchism appears to people as a "pie in the sky solution" which sounds
good in theory but offers them nothing practical to help them with the
problems they face in their daily lives. If anarchism is going to appeal
to masses of people, it has to present realistic solutions or programs
which respond to the political demands made by ordinary people. Our
failure to present people with realistic, practical, yet anarchist,
solutions to the problems that they face is one of the major failings of

I know that some forms of anarchism have a better record on this than
perhaps any other revolutionary political doctrine. Anarchists have often
been concerned to create "the future now" by attempting to establish
working models of anarchist practise in our own organisations, communes,
cooperatives, mutual aid projects, etc. These sorts of activism seem to me
to be anarchism at its best.

But there are significant problems with trying to establish anarchist forms
of social organisation in the midst of capitalism. Any attempt to
establish co-operatives, or alternative lifestyles within capitalism runs
up against the fact that the basic conditions under which such projects
must survive are those dictated by capitalism. Capitalists who have no
qualms about exploiting their workers or destroying the environment will
always be able to out compete - to provide cheaper goods or superficially
more attractive lifestyles - concerns which try to operate in a
non-exploitative, environmentally sustainable fashion. And for many people
it will be more important that the goods and services which they require be
available to them cheaply rather than produced without exploitation or
environmental destruction - not because they are uncaring but just because
they are struggling to make ends meet. We also need to recognise that
involvement in such projects can sometimes have quite high costs in terms
of time and energy and is often only a realistic option for those who live
lifestyles which allow them the freedom to bear these costs for the sake of
their political commitments. For these reasons, while they may serve as
excellent examples of how anarchism might work, communes, cooperatives and
the like will never succeed on a large scale *while capitalism continues to
exist*. Anarchist institutions *are* (vastly) superior to existing
institutions but they cannot flourish when the entire social order is
stacked against them. They will be out-competed, co-opted or simply
destroyed by capitalism. And that is one of the reasons why a revolution
is necessary.

Thus anarchist institutions will never constitute a viable alternative to
existing institutions *under capitalism*. It requires a revolution to
create anarchy. But anarchists must be able to offer people more in the
way of a political program than waiting for the revolution or engaging in
ultimately doomed attempts to try to create the sort of world we want
without a revolution. Anarchists must offer solutions here and now. So it
seems to me that lots of work needs to be done by anarchists to formulate
"transitional demands" which appear to people as realistic goals which they
can work towards and which would, if achieved, make a genuine difference to
the conditions of their daily lives but which also lead inevitably towards
their questioning capitalism and authoritarian means of social organisation
and thus eventually to anarchy. Of course, whether or not a given demand
can lead people to challenge authority and capitalism will always be at
least partially a function of political context. None the less, it seems
to me that a productive discussion of what sorts of issues are suited to
anarchist transitional demands remains possible.

The formulation of such demands is a particularly difficult problem for
anarchists because so much of existing politics concerns the role of the
state. Capitalism creates problems which require collective action to
address and, as the state is the main body in existing society which
addresses collective action problems, it is to the state that people
naturally turn when they want something done about the excesses of
capitalism. If we reject demands on the state to address political
problems then we run the risk of being irrelevant to most of the political
debates which occur around very real issues. But it is obviously
problematic for anarchists to suggest that state action is the solution to

For this reason, the question of our attitude towards the welfare state is,
I think, a very real one for anarchists. Attacks on the welfare state are
one of the key features of politics in the nineties and if we don't oppose
the roll back of the welfare state we will rightly be seen by those who it
supports as irrelevant to their needs. It is all very well to suggest that
we should establish anarchist alternatives to welfare and indeed we should.
Equally well we should point out that most government spending goes on
"defence" forces used to oppress people, investment in forms of technology
which destroy the environment and subsidies to business. But at the end of
the day we must recognise that the benefits and services provided by the
welfare state do make a very real difference to the lives of those who
would otherwise be even more oppressed by the operations of capitalism.
These people will be denied income support, education and healthcare, if
the Right have their way and succeed in destroying the welfare state. And
it is essential to remember that the loss of these benefits represents an
objective loss to the working class. People have less time and energy to
devote to politics when they are battling to survive. Furthermore, I
simply don't think that it's realistic to suggest that anarchists could
take on these functions. Anarchists simply cannot provide a living wage,
education and healthcare for the millions of people who are excluded from
these things by the operations of the "free" market. It seems to me
therefore that unless anarchists have something to offer these people we
will rightly be condemned by them as irrelevant. But if the argument above
is correct, then short of the revolution and except for a few limited small
scale examples, we cannot offer an alternative to welfare provided by the
state. So what we must offer is a defence of the welfare state which does
provide these things. We must demonstrate that anarchist methods of
organisation better allow them to resist attacks on their welfare
entitlements. But we must do this at the same time as maintaining our
critique of the state! The development of political strategies which
enable us to work effectively in political struggles in support of the
welfare state without supporting in others the illusion that the state can
ever provide an adequate solution to the problems endemic to capitalism is
an important task for anarchists today.


Another factor contributing to the failure of anarchism to take advantage
of the current circumstances is that in many areas anarchist theory has not
advanced since the early part of this century. Yet the political situation
has changed greatly. I believe that the basic insights of anarchism remain
valid. But it does seem to me that anarchist theory desperately needs to
be brought up to date in a number of areas, which I outline below. Again,
I am aware that many people are working on these issues but what is needed
is an emergent consensus. As a modern movement, anarchism has failed to
develop a coherent theoretical perspective on a number of important issues
which have arisen since the heyday of anarchism. Some of these issues and
the questions they raise are:


How should anarchists relate to Marxism, not as a political program but as
a method of historical and social analysis ("historical materialism"),
today? It is of course necessary to reject Marxist-Leninism as a
political program for revolution, but there is a danger that this will
lead to a wholesale rejection of Marxism as a way of understanding the
world, which may result in the loss of valuable insights. It seems to me
that anarchists can ill afford to reject an understanding of history as
driven by class struggle and of social power as founded in control in the
means of production. Without it anarchism lapses into an Idealism which
sees history as a struggle between the idea of authority and the idea of
liberty and as a result has little to say about political practice. On the
other hand, too much emphasis on the economic dimensions of the class
struggle can prevent us from understanding the ideological means of social
control (consumerism, nationalism, television, etc) which seem to play a
key part in preventing revolution in modern capitalist economies. So how
much of historical materialism do we accept? Is a specifically anarchist
historical materialism possible? How would it analyse the history of the
Soviet Union and its collapse? What would it have to say about the nature
of the class struggle today? A related and important question is; what
would an anarchist theory of class look like? These seem to me to be
crucial and difficult questions for a contemporary anarchism.


Some of the best anarchist writing today is going on in and in response to
the environmental movement. But it seems to me that there still remains
work to be done in this area. Some of the questions which occur to me are:
How does a modern class struggle anarchism relate to deep ecology? Do we
support forest workers or the green movement in struggles about logging old
growth forests? How do we feel about the new shamanism and spiritualism
which has arisen out of some parts of the environmental movement? Do we
embrace them as an anti-authoritarian attempt to meet genuine human
spiritual needs or reject them as a new irrationalism which distracts
people from the real political struggle necessary to change the world we
live in? Do we see technology as part of the problem or as providing
potential solutions to the environmental and political problems caused by


This is an area where it seems to me that a great deal of work needs to be
done. What does anarchism have to say in response to theoretical
developments over the last twenty years in feminism, critical race and
queer theory? There are many questions about organisation and political
practice which have been raised by writers in these areas which are
important questions for anarchists also. In particular, should anarchist
organisations maintain special forums for members of disadvantaged groups?
What organisational measures can we take to ensure that anarchist groups do
not simply replicate within them the sexism, racism and homophobia of the
culture that we live in? Many anarchists, I think would like to believe
that their own commitment to a genuinely egalitarian politics as anarchists
is itself enough to prevent that. But, at least in my experience, this is
not the case. Sexism, racism and homophobia go much deeper than the
conscious desire to oppress people. The best will in the world does not
prevent one from inadvertently participating in deep social structures and
mechanisms of exclusion and oppression. Anarchists need to do much more
than simply point to their anarchism if they are going to convince members
of oppressed groups that they will be able to participate as equals in
their organisations. Again, the liberal and Enlightenment origins of
anarchism hamper its ability to deal with these issues effectively.
Liberal notions of equality push against proposals for special
representation and affirmative action which may be necessary to avoid
perpetuating injustice. Abstract ideas about "freedom of speech" have been
deployed by anarchists to prevent women, queers and members of minority
racial groups organising to oppose pornography, homophobia and racist hate
speech. The political ideals of the 19th century in which anarchism has
(at least some of) its roots have been identified as part of the problem,
by feminists, queer theorists and critical race theorists, and anarchists
must exercise great caution before simply restating these to try to and
address their concerns. There are difficult issues here to which I do not
pretend to have the answers. But neither does anarchism. And that is, I
think, a problem.


For reasons discussed above it seems to me that there is also an important
set of questions for anarchism about our attitude towards the welfare
state. Should we participate in campaigns to oppose the roll back of the
welfare state? Do all forms of state provided welfare involve the same
extension of the power of the state and promote the same reliance on the
state in welfare recipients? Are there some methods of state provision of
welfare which anarchists prefer over others? What *realistic* alternatives
to welfare are we capable of offering? Answers to these questions are
essential if we are to develop a politics which has something to offer
those whose living standards are threatened by the continuing assault by
the Right on the welfare state.


This essay has intentionally posed more questions than it has attempted to
provide answers. I am aware that their are at least partial answers
available to many of the questions I have raised. Many of these questions
can only be properly answered in political practice and not at an abstract
theoretical level. It is also true that I am over generalising from my
(limited) experience of the anarchist movement in Australia. No doubt
there are anarchist movements and organisations around the world which have
avoided or overcome some, or perhaps all, of the problems that I have
raised. But anarchists can ill afford to be complacent in a period in
which their ideas have the potential to gain a large following and yet are
not. It will be a tragedy if anarchism proves unable to make the most of
the political opportunities which I believe are open to us as a result of
the collapse of state socialism.

Rob Sparrow.