JR'S Free Thought Pages
An Account of Anarchism
With some comments and quotes from anarchist thinkers
Mikhail Bakunin and NoamChomsky
Every type of ecclesiastical and political power presupposes some particular form of human slavery, for the maintenance of which it is called into being. – Rudolf Rocker
Anarchism is a philosophy of freedom. It is a body of revolutionary ideas which reconciles, as no other revolutionary concept does, the necessity for individual freedom with the demands of society. The word "anarchy" has been universally used in the sense of disorder, chaos and confusion – even violence; and it is to this day used in that sense by the ignorant and uninformed as well as by political opponents with an interest in distorting the truth and gaining power, which is the universal goal of all politicians. It must be pointed out that violence, contrary to popular mythology, is not part of the anarchist philosophy. It has repeatedly been pointed out by anarchist thinkers that the revolution can neither be won, nor the anarchist society established and maintained, by armed violence.
The word ‘anarchy’ comes from the Greek anarkhia, meaning contrary to authority or without a ruler, and was used in a disparaging sense until 1840, when it was adopted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon to describe his socio-political philosophy. Proudhon argued that organization without government was both viable and desirable. In the evolution of political ideas, anarchism is generally deemed an ultimate projection of both liberalism and socialism, and the differing strands of anarchist thought can be related to their emphasis on one or the other of these.
Historically, anarchism arose not only as an explanation of the gulf between the rich and the poor in any community, and of the reason why the poor have been obliged to fight for their share of a common inheritance, but as a radical answer to the question ‘What went wrong?’ that followed the ultimate outcome of the French Revolution. It had ended not only with a reign of terror and the emergence of a newly rich ruling caste, but with a new adored emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, strutting through his conquered territories.
The anarchists and their precursors were unique on the political Left in affirming that workers and peasants, grasping the chance that arose to bring an end to centuries of exploitation and tyranny, were inevitably betrayed by the new class of liberal politicians, whose first priority was to re-establish a centralized state power. After every revolutionary uprising, usually won at a heavy cost for ordinary populations, the new rulers had no hesitation in applying violence and terror, a secret police, and a professional army to maintain their control and historical privileged status.
For anarchists the state itself is the enemy, and they have applied the same interpretation to the outcome of every revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is not merely because every state keeps a watchful and sometimes punitive eye on its dissidents, but because every state has always and continues, even in our so-called contemporary constitutional democracies, to protect the privileges of a powerful oligarchy. This tendency toward solidifying entrenched interests of conservative elites has been magnified over the past several decades of neo-conservatism in both North America and Europe. For an analysis of this regressive drift to the right read my Conservative Corporate Welfare State. You may also enjoy listening to George Carlin’s take on it here in an HBO special and an interview on MSNBC here.
Some notable quotes from anarchist thinkers…
Here is Paul Goodman, author of “Growing Up Absurd”(1960)
“For me, the chief principle of anarchism is not freedom but autonomy, the ability to initiate a task and do it one’s own way. The weakness of ‘my’ anarchism is that the lust for freedom is a powerful motive for political change, whereas autonomy is not. Autonomous people protect themselves stubbornly but by less strenuous means, including plenty of passive resistance. They do it their own way anyway. The pathos of oppressed people, however, is that, if they break free, they don’t know what to do. Not having been autonomous, they don’t know what it’s like, and before they learn, they have new managers who are not in a hurry to abdicate . . . “ - Paul Goodman
“The revolutionary alternative to the status quo today is not collectivized property administered by a ‘workers’ state’ whatever that means, but some kind of anarchist decentralization that will break up mass society into small communities where individuals can live together as variegated human beings instead of as impersonal units in the mass sum. The shallowness of the New Deal and the British Labor Party’s post-war regime is shown by their failure to improve any of the important things in people’s lives – the actual relationships on the job, the way they spend their leisure, and childrearing and sex and art. It is mass living that vitiates all these today, and the State that holds together the status quo. Marxism glorifies ‘the masses’ and endorses the State. Anarchism leads back to the individual and the community, which is ‘impractical’ but necessary – that is to say, it is revolutionary.” – Dwight MacDonald
“[Emancipation for women will come] first, by asserting herself as a personality, and not a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family etc., by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. Only that, and not the ballot, will set women free . . .” – Emma Goldman
Alex Comfort, in his book More Joy: A Lovemaking Companion to The Joy of Sex (1973), he included an anarchist account of the connection between sexuality and politics. He asserted that:
“…acquiring the awareness and the attitudes which can come from good sexual experience does not make for selfish withdrawal: it is more inclined to radicalize people. The anti-sexualism of authoritarian societies and the people who run them does not spring from conviction (they themselves have sex), but from the vague perception that freedom here might lead to a liking for freedom elsewhere. People who have eroticized their experience of themselves and the world are, on the one hand, inconveniently unwarlike, and on the other, violently combative in resisting political salesmen and racists who threaten the personal freedom they have attained and want to see others share.” – Alex Comfort
A take on the “American Dream” by American Anarchist Murray Bookchin:
‘What we are trying to do’, he explained,
“…is to redeem certain aspects of the American Dream. There are, of course, several American dreams: one is the John Wayne tradition of the cowboy going out to the West, and the whole notion of pioneering individualism; another is the immigrant American dream, this being the land of opportunity where the streets are made of gold. But there is a third American dream, which is the oldest of the lot, dating back to Puritan times, which stresses community, decentralization, self-sufficiency, mutual aid and face-to-face democracy.” – Murray Bookchin
The 19th century “renaissance” of anarchism and beyond:
Here is Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in a very perceptive prognostication:
“Liberal today under a liberal government, it will tomorrow become the formidable engine of an usurping despot. It is a perpetual temptation to the executive power, a perpetual threat to the people’s liberties. No rights, individual or collective, can be sure of a future. Centralization might, then, be called the disarming of a nation for the profit of its government . . .” – Proudhon [Considering the one-dimensional conservative corporatist choices we are offered at the polls these days and what many deluded people still perceive to be a “democracy”, this was a classic Orwellian calculation]
Everything we now know about the 20th-century history of Europe, Asia, Latin America, or Africa supports this perception. Nor does the North American style of federalism, so lovingly conceived by Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, guarantee the removal of this threat. One of Proudhon’s English biographers, Edward Hyams, comments that:
“… it has become apparent since the Second World War that United States Presidents can and do make use of the Federal administrative machine in a way which makes a mockery of democracy.”
George Monbiot, in his book Captive State, describes how
“… In April 1998, a ragged band of protesters inflicted the first of a series of defeats on a coalition of the most powerful interests on earth. The 29 richest nations had joined forces with the world’s biggest multinational companies to write ‘the constitution of a single global economy’. Proposed and drafted by businessmen, secretly discussed by governments, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment would, had it succeeded, have granted corporations the right to sue any country whose laws restricted their ability to make money. The treaty was, its opponents claimed, a charter for the corporate takeover of the world.” – George Monbiot
The founder of cybernetics, the neurologist Grey Walter, pointed out that:
“We find no boss in the brain, no oligarchic ganglion or glandular Big Brother. Within our heads our very lives depend on equality of opportunity, on specialization with versatility, on free communication and just restraint, a freedom without interference. Here too, local minorities can and do control their own means of production and expression in free and equal intercourse with their neighbors.” – Grey Walter
A remarkable American individualist, Randolph Bourne (1886–1918), invented a famous phrase during the First World War, as he observed the process by which his country was maneuvered into participating in that war. ‘War is the health of the state’, he claimed, and he explained that:
“The State is the organization of the herd to act offensively or defensively against another herd similarly organized. War sends the current of purpose and activity flowing down to the lowest level of the herd, and to its most remote branches. All the activities of society are linked together as fast as possible to this central purpose of making a military offensive or military defense, and the State.” – Randolph Bourne
Henry David Thoreau, in one of his essays, usually called ‘On the duty of civil disobedience’, though originally published in 1849 as ‘Resistance to civil government’, attracted no attention at the time, but subsequently influenced both Tolstoy and Gandhi (who read it in prison in South Africa). Martin Luther King read it as a student in Atlanta, and recalled that:
“Fascinated by the idea of refusing to co-operate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. This was my first intellectual contact with the theory of non-violent resistance.” – Martin Luther King
Lysander Spooner (1808–87) wanted an America of self-employed individuals sharing equal access to credit. He argued, too, that:
“… if a man has never consented or agreed to support a government, he breaks no faith in refusing to support it. And if he makes war on it, he does so as an open enemy, and not as a traitor.”
Stephen Pearl Andrews (1812–86) similarly accepted that the sovereignty of the individual applied to every individual. Consequently, as anarchist writer Peter Marshall explains,
“He consistently opposed slavery and tried to free the state of Texas by raising money to buy off all of its slaves but the war with Mexico intervened. He also argued that sexual behavior and family life should be matters of personal responsibility beyond the control of Church and State.”
On the futility of the government “War on Drugs” by Erricco Malatesta (written in the 1920s):
“It is the old mistake of legislators, in spite of experience invariably showing that laws, however barbarous they may be, have never served to suppress vice or to discourage delinquency. The more severe the penalties imposed on the consumers and traffickers of cocaine, the greater will be the attractions of forbidden fruits and the fascination of the risks incurred by the consumer, and the greater will be the profits made by the speculators, avid for money.
It is useless, therefore, to hope for anything from the law. We must suggest another solution. Make the use and sale of cocaine free from restrictions, and open kiosks where it would be sold at cost price or even under cost. And then launch a great propaganda campaign to explain to the public, and let them see for themselves, the evils of cocaine; no one would engage in counter-propaganda because no one could exploit the misfortune of addicts.
Certainly the harmful use of cocaine would not disappear completely, because the social causes which create and drive those poor devils to the use of drugs would still exist. But in any case the evil would decrease, because nobody could make profits out of its sale, and nobody could speculate on the hunt for speculators. And for this reason our suggestion either will not be taken into account, or it will be considered impractical and mad. Yet intelligent and disinterested people might say to themselves: Since the penal laws have proved to be impotent, would it not be a good thing, as an experiment, to try out the anarchist method?” [Errico Malatesta in Umanità Nova, 2 September 1920, reprinted in V. Richards (ed.), Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas (London: Freedom Press, 1965)]
On Prisons in the USA
The United States has become a fascist police state purely from the perspective of the fact that it has more of its population incarcerated in prisons than any other country in the world. David Cayley reported in 1998 (conditions are far worse now) that:
“…to help house the 1.5 million Americans currently in prison, 168 new state prisons and 45 new federal prisons were built between 1990 and 1995 alone, but these were still not enough to accommodate the numbers of new prisoners . . . The United States has now exposed so many of its citizens – especially its Black and Hispanic citizens – to the brutalizing effects of its prisons that a self-fulfilling prophecy has been set in motion. The more Americans who are manhandled by the criminal justice system, the more there are whose behavior seems to justify and demand this treatment.” – David Cayley
Religious fundamentalism and its ominous threat to democracy
Today, all over the world, the secular state is under threat. Secular political regimes in North Africa and the Middle East are confronted by militant religious movements, and there is a growing Christian fundamentalist threat to the fundamental liberties of skeptics and non-believers and he secular constitution of the United States. This isn’t what Bakunin or Marx, or any other political thinker of the 19th century, from Alexis de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill, predicted. In fact many of the framers of the US Constitution such as Jefferson, Madison and Adams were men of the Enlightenment - rationalists and religious skeptics and would likely have not even been considered as viable candidates in the world of contemporary American politics in which fundamentalist Christianity has a stranglehold. An avowed atheist for example would be hard pressed to get elected dog catcher.
The unexpected and unwelcome change in the religious atmosphere which we call religious fundamentalism arose from a trend in religious revivalism in the United States after the First World War, which insisted on belief in the literal truth of everything in the Holy Babble. The use of the term has spread to describe trends in the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Shinto religions which, to outsiders, present similar features. They are a threat not only to the hard-won concept of the Enlightenment ideal of the liberal democratic secular society, which some anarchists may not feel to be that important, but to the hard-won freedoms of every citizen. The anarchist and secularist writer Nicolas Walter urged us to take this threat seriously, stressing that:
“Fundamentalist Christians are trying to suppress the study of evolution and the practice of contraception and abortion in the West and the Third World. Fundamentalist Jews are trying to incorporate the whole of Palestine into Israel and to impose the halachah, the traditional law of Judaism. Fundamentalist Muslims are trying to establish Muslim regimes in all countries with Muslim populations (including Britain) and to impose the sharia, the traditional law of Islam. And fundamentalists of all faiths are using assassination and terror all over the world to suppress freedom and discussion of such matters.” – Nicolas Walter
On Michael Bakunin
The hostility and absolute contempt for the oppressive authoritarian nature of organized religion and the state permeates the writings of the author who introduced me to anarchist ideas back in my undergraduate days at UBC, Michael Bakunin, particularly his classic God and the State. In this pamphlet, written in 1871, he deplores the fact that belief in God still survives among the people, especially, as he put it, ‘in the rural districts, where it is more widespread than among the proletariat of the cities’. He thought this faith in religion was all too convenient, since all governments profited from the obedience, ignorance and blind faith of working people as one of the essential conditions of their own power; while burdened by poor pay and the drudgery of long hours on the job, thus depriving them of leisure, community and intellectual intercourse with their peers. From these conditions the masses sought an escape.
Bakunin claimed that there were three routes of escape from the miseries of life, two of them illusory and one real. The first two were the bottle and the church, ‘debauchery of the body or debauchery of the mind; the third is social revolution’.
Social revolution, he asserted,
“…will be much more potent than all the theological propaganda of the freethinkers to destroy to their last vestige the religious beliefs and dissolute habits of the people, beliefs and habits much more intimately connected than is generally supposed.”
Bakunin then turned to the powerful, dominant classes in society who, while too worldly-wise to be believers themselves, ‘must at least make a semblance of believing’ because the simple faith of the people was a useful factor in keeping them down. Finally, in this particular statement of his attitudes, Bakunin turns to those propagandists and proselytizers for religion who, when you challenge them on any specific absurdity in their dogma, relating to miracles, virgin births, or resurrection, loftily explain that they are to be understood as beautiful myths rather than literal truths, and that we are to be pitied for our prosaic questions, rather than them for propagating mythology as truth.
Bakunin’s opinions were much the same on this matter as those of his adversary Karl Marx, one of whose best-known phrases being his description of religion as the ‘opium of the people’. And the historians of ideas would categorize liberalism, socialism, communism, and anarchism all as products of the period known as the Enlightenment, the result of the Age of Reason and skepticism of religious superstitions, the ferment of ideas and the spirit of enquiry between the English Revolution of the 1640s and the American and French revolutions of the 1770s and 1780s.
Some Bakunin quotes from God and the State (Dover Books edition):
“It is evident that whoever finds it essential to his happiness and life must renounce his reason, and return, if he can, to naive, blind, stupid faith, to repeat with Tertullianus and all sincere believers these words, which sum up the very quintessence of theology: Credo quia absurdum. Then all discussion ceases, and nothing remains but the triumphant stupidity of faith.” (p. 15)
“Until the days of Copernicus and Galileo everybody believed that the sun revolved about the earth. Was not everybody mistaken? What is more ancient and more universal than slavery? Cannibalism perhaps? From the origin of historic society down to the present day there has been always and everywhere exploitation of the compulsory labor of the masses--slaves, serfs, or wage workers -- by some dominant minority; oppression of the people by the Church and by the State. Must it be concluded that this exploitation and this oppression are necessities absolutely inherent in the very existence of human society? These are examples which show that the argument of the champions of God proves nothing.” (p. 20)
“With all due respect, then, to the metaphysicians and religious idealists, philosophers, politicians, or poets: The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice….If God exists, man is a slave; man can and must be free; then God does not exist.” (p. 25)
“The God whom they adore, or whom they think they adore, is distinguished from the real gods of history precisely in this-that he is not at all a positive god, defined in any way whatever, theologically or even metaphysically. He is neither the supreme being of Robespierre and J. J. Rousseau, nor the pantheistic god of Spinoza, nor even the at once immanent, transcendental, and very equivocal god of Hegel. They take good care not to give him any positive definition whatever, feeling very strongly that any definition would subject him to the dissolving power of criticism.” (p. 26)
“The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally imposed upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual.” (p. 30)
“It is the characteristic of privilege and of every privileged position to kill the mind and heart of men.” (p. 31)
“I do not think that society ought to maltreat men of genius as it has done hitherto; but neither do I think it should indulge them too far, still less accord them any privileges or exclusive rights whatsoever; and that for three reasons: first, because it would often mistake a charlatan for a man of genius; second, because, through such a system of privileges, it might transform into a charlatan even a real man of genius, demoralize him, and degrade him; and, finally, because it would establish a master over itself.” (p. 33)
“From the moment that God, the perfect and supreme being, is posited face to face with humanity, divine mediators, the elect, the inspired of God spring from the earth to enlighten, direct, and govern in his name the human race.” (p. 37)
“Do I need to recall that the priests of all churches, far from sacrificing themselves to the flocks confided to their care, have always sacrificed them, exploited them, and kept them in the condition of a flock, partly to satisfy their own personal passions and partly to serve the omnipotence of the Church? Like conditions, like causes, always produce like effects. It will, then, be the same with the professors of the modern School divinely inspired and licensed by the State. They will necessarily become, some without knowing it, others with full knowledge of the cause, teachers of the doctrine of popular sacrifice to the power of the State and to the profit of the privileged classes.” (footnote to p. 40)
“The only way, on the contrary, harmful only to the people, precious in its salvation of bourgeois privileges, is no other than religion. That is the eternal mirage which leads away the masses in a search for divine treasures, while much more reserved, the governing class contents itself with dividing among all its members--very unequally, moreover and always giving most to him who possesses most--the miserable goods of earth and the plunder taken from the people, including their political and social liberty.
There is not, there cannot be, a State without religion. Take the freest States in the world--the United States of America or the Swiss Confederation, for instance--and see what an important part is played in all official discourses by divine Providence, that supreme sanction of all States.” (p. 84)
Noam Chomsky and The Spanish Civil War
The country where anarchism put down its deepest roots was Spain, which in the 1930s had both a mass anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), and the FAI (Federación Anarquista Iberica), an anarchist body which emerged periodically from an underground existence. The revolution of 19 July 1936 in Spain illustrates another gulf between the anarchist account of events and the way they are perceived and described by more influential voices.
On 18 July 1936, Spain had three Popular Front governments in the course of a single day, debating how to oppose the military revolt from the generals in Morocco, which was moving into mainland Spain, and usually concluding that resistance was futile. Meanwhile in several cities and regions, not only were the weapons of the military garrisons and the civil guards seized, but CNT members took control of factories, transport, and land. The following day marked the beginning, not only of a war against Franco’s insurrection, but of a popular revolution.
Franco’s rebellion was aided by weapons, troops, and bomber aircraft from Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany, but the Non-Intervention Agreement upheld by the American, British and French governments limited the supply of arms for the anti-Fascist forces to those provided (at the cost of Spain’s gold reserves) by the Soviet Union. A further heavy penalty was paid for Soviet support. Stalin’s foreign policy required the repudiation of the Spanish anarchist revolution in the interests of the ‘Popular Front’ concept. In the effort to resist growing Soviet influence, anarchist and syndicalist militants actually compromised their principles and became ministers both in the Catalan government in Barcelona and in the central government in Madrid.
The war in Spain wound down to its desolate conclusion in April 1939, after immense suffering and loss of life. In August that year the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler was signed and in September the Second World War began. Franco’s oppressive fascist regime in Spain survived until the dictator’s death in 1975. The collapse of opposition brought a relentless campaign of vengeance against those who dared to oppose Franco. There were untold numbers of executions and the prisons were filled. Millions of Spaniards lived out their lives in exile.
From the point of view of the anarchists, Spain thus provided terrible ironies. In terms of the collectivization of agriculture and industry, it gave a living and inspiring example of Kropotkin’s theories about the seizure of control by the workers. In those parts of the country that had not been seized by army units supporting Franco there were large-scale seizures of land. Spain was a predominantly agricultural country, in which 67% of the land was owned by the Catholic Church and 2% of landowners. At the same time many smallholdings were too small to feed a family. Gerald Brenan, in his classic book The Spanish Labyrinth, explained that ‘the only reasonable solution through wide tracts of Spain is a collective one’. The masses of peasants had lived in deplorable conditions of poverty and were systematically exploited by both the wealthy landowners and the Catholic Church for centuries.
In 1936 it was estimated that in those parts of Spain not overrun by Franco’s troops, about three million men, women, and children were living in collectivized communes. Observers from the time similarly reported on the collectivization of factories in Catalonia and of the reorganization of public services, transport, telephones, gas, and electricity in Barcelona.
The distinguished American philosopher of language Noam Chomsky remembers reading about these achievements as a boy in New York, in the Yiddish-language anarchist journal Fraye Arbeter Shtime. There stayed in his mind a report on a poverty-stricken Spanish town, Membrilla, in whose miserable huts eight thousand people lived, with ‘no newspaper, no cinema, neither a cafe nor a library’. But the villagers shared food, clothing, and tools, and took in a large number of refugees. ‘It was, however, not a socialization of wealth but of poverty . . . Membrilla is perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but it is the most just.’ Chomsky comments that:
An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, must appear very strange to the consciousness of the sophisticated intellectual, and it is therefore treated with scorn, or taken to be naive or primitive or otherwise irrational. Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records.
By now the serious studies have been made, and Chomsky has stressed their significance and their lessons for the future, since, as he says,
“What attracts me about anarchism personally are the tendencies in it that try to come to grips with the problems of dealing with complex organized industrial societies within a framework of free institutions and structures.”
The Spanish experience hardly met the second of his criteria, but the events of 1936 amply justified his comments. These achievements were barely noticed in the news media of Western Europe outside the journals of anarchism and the non-communist far Left, and when George Orwell, back from Spain, attempted to puncture the conspiracy of silence in his Homage to Catalonia in 1937, his book had sold a mere 300 copies before being remaindered to the anarchist bookshop in 1940. Orwell was a life-long socialist but was sympathetic to anarchist principles, having many close anarchist friends such as Herbert Read, Vernon Richards and the Canadian George Woodcock.* Many decades later, Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedom (1995) was rapturously received in Spain for dramatizing a key episode in the civil war, hitherto almost unknown in Spain itself.
*The anarchist George Woodcock (1912-1995), a UBC professor for some years, spent a lot of time with Orwell when he was in Britain during the 1940s and wrote a wonderful biography of his friend called The Crystal Spirit: A Study of George Orwell (1966).
Needless to say, in the years of exile, those anarchists who had survived both the war and Franco’s revenge devoted endless debate to the fatal decision of the leaders of the CNT to become part of government in an effort to combat Soviet dominance. Since every variety of anarchism has opposed the structure of politics and the political system, this decision was seen as a compromise that brought no advantage and much discredit. Those anarchists who have explored the issue tend to agree with the comment of the veteran French anarchist Sébastien Faure: ‘I am aware of the fact that it is not always possible to do what one should do; but I know that there are things that on no account can one ever do.’
Meanwhile, decades later, a new series of popular uprisings rediscovered anarchist slogans in heroic defiance of Stalin’s apparently monolithic empire. Suppressed aspirations emerged on the streets of Hungarian and Polish cities in 1956 and on those of Czechoslovakia in 1968. They were harbingers of the subsequent bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, after decades of appalling suffering for those who, usually inadvertently, failed to please their rulers.
As the regimes of their jailers collapsed around them, there was some comfort for the surviving anarchists, with their black flags of protest against the new capitalism steered into being by their old oppressors. They were still monotonously right and their priorities remained the same.