Answering Martin’s Questions Regarding Anarchism

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CNT-Poster

H/t to Martin for tagging me on this. I added a question (A), How were you introduced to anarchism?

(A) How were you introduced to anarchism?

I was introduced to anarchism in my teens through the punk-rock and hardcore punk music scene. While my understanding of anarchism was neither deep nor broad, the anti-authoritarian and DIY elements really appealed to me. Here is a little classic anarcho-punk:

When I got a bit older (20s) I started reading some of the classical anarchist authors and texts after volunteering at an anarchist press that will remain nameless; “Bakunin on Anarchism” (translated by Sam Dolgoff), Kropotkin’s “The Conquest of Bread,” Rudolf Rocker’s “Anarcho-Syndicalism,” Abel Paz’s “Durruti: The People Armed,” Murray Bookchin’s “The Spanish Anarchists” and loads of stuff by Paul Avrich including “Anarchist Portraits,” “Anarchist Voices,” “Sacco and Vanzetti,” and “The Haymarket Tragedy.”

1. What exactly do you mean by anarchism (which key ideas and thinkers are important to you)?

In its most simple formulation, libertarian socialism i.e. socialism that allows for a maximum of individual liberty. As Bakunin wrote, “Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice and Socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.”

Back in my anarchist days I moved from an anarcho-syndicalist or anarcho-communist perspective to a much more individualist or mutualist position. It’s strange that my personal progression was the inverse of the historical development of anarchism as an ideology i.e from a form of mutualism influenced by Proudhon to Bakunin’s anarcho-collectivism to Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism.

As to which key ideas and thinkers are important to me, today I have moved rather far from my anarcho-roots. But back in the day I liked Benjamin Tucker and the American individualists, Errico Malatesta (anarcho-communist), Rudolf Rocker (anarcho-syndicalist), and especially Fernando Tarrida del Mármol and Ricardo Mella who advocated what they termed anarchismo sin adjetivos (anarchism without adjectives). These two authors found that anarchists shared more in common then all their hyphenated forms seemed to indicate.

I still have a lot of affinity for Carlo Tresca, who was able to work with anarchists, the syndicalists in the IWW and more mainstream trade-unionists. Like Mella, he was a bridge-builder between a variety of different leftwing movements and political perspectives. He was also a fierce opponent of Stalinists, fascists and the mob.

But the anarchists I felt I had the most in common with were people like Dolgoff or the working-class anarchist immigrants Avrich interviewed in “Anarchist Voices”. These people were activists and not traditional intellectuals. Their stories, their families, their struggles, their language, spoke to me and I found a lot of inspiration reading about their lives.

Sadly, I have found that anarchists in the U.S. have lost much of their willingness to actively fight against totalitarian socialism. Sure, they’ll diss the commies in their newspapers and journals. But when it comes to rallies and demonstrations, the anarchists and Stalinists, Maoists and other totalitarian socialists march side-by-side. In Tresca’s day, the anarchists would be fighting these scum in the streets, factories and neighborhoods. I have written a little about this here and here.

CNT-tram

2. Does the anarchist experiment in the Spanish Republic have any relevance today (and if so what), or is the continuing fascination with it simply rose-tinted leftist nostalgia?

Allowing my remnant of anarchist influence to show through, I prefer to refer to the Spanish Revolution. The main relevance of that event is anarchists and other liberty-minded individuals should never, ever, trust the communists. Even if that means working with liberals, non-radicals and—dare I say it—other advocates of capitalism.

As to the rose-tinted nostalgia, it is incredibly strong among anarchists. As I have mentioned elsewhere, CNT militants certainly resisted Communist attempts at destroying the anarchist collectives. But, at the same time, the anarchists also implemented pro-capitalist methods themselves.

These methods including tying wages to productivity, the implementation of the piece-rate system, harsh punitive measures for slackers, even forced collectivization which most anarchists fail to admit.

As Seidman writes, “A dispassionate examination of the charges and countercharges leads to the conclusion that both anarchist and Communists were correct. The former used illegal coercion to initiate collectives, and the latter used it to destroy them.” (126) (Michael Seidman “Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War“. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

I highly recommend Seidman’s book as he does not have an ideological axe to grind and is trying to humanize our understanding of the conflict. Seidman argues for most Spaniards, the ideological struggles mattered less than day-to-day survival. What did they do? How did they survive? These are the questions Seidman seeks to answer, not which side had the proper ideological line. For most Spaniards, consumption was the primary consideration, not class-struggle.

Where we are today, I think the example of the Mondragon Cooperatives is more relevant than the Spanish anarchist collectives.

primitivists

3. What exactly would it mean to implement anarchist ideas in a twenty-first century, globalised economy and polity – and would it even be possible or practicable?

That depends on what sort of anarchist you ask. The anarcho-primitivists have different ideas than the anarcho-insurrectionists who have different ideas than the anarcho-syndicalists who have different ideas than the anarcho-communists.

Possible, no.

Practicable, no.

In the end, anarchism is a utopian ideology. In my teens and twenties, utopianism had a lot of appeal for me. Today, I find that when utopian ideals are implemented they lead to dystopian realities. In other words, Hobbes was right. Human beings need the State in order to have what we know as civilization. That does not mean we should refrain from being vigilant against the encroachment of the State in our personal lives but we should recognize the benefits the State provides to us as individuals, families, etc.

I also think it is important to point out that some of the most important anarchist thinkers were intensely anti-Semitic. I am thinking specifically of Bakunin and Proudhon. This usually is swept under the rug by anarchists, including Jewish anarchists. Jewish Marxists do the same thing with Marx.

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2 responses »

  1. Anarchism without adjectives is really nice and deserves wider recognition and was a description also adopted by a number of others including Malatesta, as well as Nettlau, Reclus and Voltarine de Cleyre (whose essays have been reissued, edited by Sharon Presley, and are to be recommended).

    the most important anarchist thinkers were intensely anti-Semitic

    The commonplace association of Jews with finance capital, with its associated disgusting racist tropes, infected much of early left thought in all movements. (Though if I was to use the word ‘intensely’ about Proudhon, I would choose his misogyny rather than anti-Semitism. After all he took time to write a whole book on it, La Pornocratie.)

    I have also found it in 19th Century individualist papers, but I do not think that serious scholars gloss over it, it is highlighted in most studies.

    However, from Kropotkin onwards, it is almost entirely absent and was forcefully challenged by some (a whole issue of Barnhill’s magazine was devoted to confronting anti-Semitism. Then, of course, there came Nettlau, Berkman, Goldman and the gentile Rocker who learnt Yiddish in order to organise Jewish sweat shop labour. None of these excused anti-Semitism, in fact they confronted it.

    So many of “the most important thinkers” were not anti-Semites, but some of the early ones were.

    There are three general points I would make.

    1. Is that there has always been a need to recognise and challenge a persistent anti-Semitic discourse common in sections of the left, though by no means confined to it.

    2. That studies of Bakunin and Proudhon tend not to concentrate on their regressive views simply because they are valueless and not integral to their thought. In many ways, they are contradictory. Therefore I take things of great value from them despite full knowledge of their worst prejudices. This is not ‘glossing over’. Norm has made the same point well about Marx on Normblog.

    3. We need to distinguish between movements and ideas which build themselves around the concept of the intrinsic inequality of, say, genders, ethnic groups and classes and which hold these views as central to their ideological position, such as fascism, and those that are infected by broader social prejudices.

    Thus the left is not anti-Semitic, but has a problem with anti-Semitism in its midst, a problem that has not often been acknowledged nor even recognised. Anarchism has not been bad at recognising it and dealing with it, unlike some others with their apologias at the moment who are utterly blind to the implications of line they are peddling.

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