Category Archives: Theory

Answering Martin’s Questions Regarding Anarchism



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.


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.


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.

Ernest Sternberg: A Revivified Corpse, Left-Fascism in the Twenty-First Century



Ernest’s Sternberg’s review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s, Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism (New York: Random House, 2008 ) in Telos (A Revivified Corpse: Left Fascism in the Twenty-First Century) is well worth reading (also check out Fred Siegel’s review in Democratiya here).

The review is a pithy summary of many of the issues that concern me today including the collusion and alliances of the extreme left and extreme right, the development of Islamist totalitarianism, and the increasing frequency of antisemitism cloaked as anti-imperialism. Observing events in his native France since the fall of the Soviet Union and especially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Lévy asks, “what happened to the secular, liberal, left?” In answering this question, Sternberg notes two ideas at the core of Lévy’s conception of contemporary neo-progressive thought:

One is the Good (a poorly chosen word, an insult to classical thinking about the good): the idea that here and now our troubled society can be upended to create a shining new and just society. It’s the end for which it’s worth sacrificing a generation to starvation, reeducation camps, and the police state (p. 66).

Perhaps a better term is “the perfect” as in “the perfect is the enemy of the good” or simply, utopianism.

The review continues:

The other is the Evil: that filth and corruption in which we are now trapped. Leading from one to the other is the “boulevard of history.” Driving us along it is that dialectical machine, that curative force, that “political medicalism” (Lévy quoting Foucault) that carries us from our miserable existence into this fabulous future, with such certainty that we need not fret about lives discarded along the way.

How far we have drifted from May ’68, Lévy mourns. It had seemed then that the Left had shorn itself of communism, devoted itself to anti-fascism and anti-racism, and agreed to work for human rights through imperfect liberal-democratic regimes. It is this non-Marxist Left that had Lévy’s allegiance. But after the collapse of communism and all the more so after 9/11, Lévy saw the coalescence of a new ideology, a new degenerate Left. It first seemed to him pointless, just something cobbled together from defunct ideologies. But then he understood that it was a revivified Left, which was once again acceding to totalitarian temptation. The outcome is today’s neoprogressivism.

Sternberg has more substantial critiques of Lévy’s analysis. In particular, his “failure to comprehend mainstream Anglo-American conservatism.” For Lévy:

conservatism brings to mind those martinets who persecuted Dreyfus: those whose highest values were Authority, Order, Nation, State, Tradition, and Social Body (his capitalizations) as against intellectuals, freedom, democracy, parliament, and rights of man (p. 24). Unable to extricate himself from hoary Left-Right dichotomy, even as he reveals its bankruptcy, Lévy claims the parliamentarian Edmund Burke, whose sin was to be a conservative, as one of the origins of the historical path to Nazism (p. 92).

The irony is that Lévy himself has taken a Burkean turn. Lévy identifies the essence of the anti-totalitarian spirit as one that conceives of politics “as a world of indecision, indetermination, which takes into account the complexity of human affairs, the need for deliberation and compromise” (p. 70)…

American conservatives aren’t interested in Burke because he admired the French queen but because he formulated a powerful argument for incremental reform in light of society’s overwhelming complexity, an argument not so far removed from Lévy’s own…

…Most versions of American conservative thought look for inspiration and tradition not to an ancien régime, but to the American revolution, the Founding Fathers, the constitution, Lincoln’s reforms, and incremental development of America as the original liberal, anti-absolutist state.

Intellectual historian George Nash covers this in The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945. Nash argues that the ideology of American conservatism is difficult to pin down. For European conservatives, things were (are?) much easier. Generally speaking, European conservatives were against radical political and social change—better known as revolution—and they supported a national church. In the United States, a country founded on revolution, such a political idea would be regarded as anti-American and the establishment of a state Church–whether Protestant or Catholic–also ran counter to American political culture.

A more serious deficiency is Lévy:

lacks an explanation for the rise of neoprogressive barbarism. Despite much intellectual name-dropping, the book is short on theory. Yet, his initial outline of totalitarian articles of faith gives a hint. The new totalitarians must envision a Good as well as an Evil, only Lévy is silent on what their Good might be.

Sternberg will discuss “Left Fascism” at the 2009 Telos Conference in NYC (Jan 17). Details below:


From the conference website:

The conference topic will be New Administration: War, Class and Critical Theory, which will consider both the new administration in Washington and political shifts abroad, viewed in light of Telos‘s long-standing concern with “administered society,” expansive bureaucracies, and the role of the “new class.”

Conference Schedule

Saturday, January 17

9:00 Greetings: Mary Piccone, Introduction: Russell Berman

New Class and Capitalism:
Beyond Welfare and State and Neo-Liberalism

Chair: David Pan

9:15 Jim Kulk: “Political Divisions and the Financial Crisis”

10:00 John Milbank: “Revived Red Toryism: The New Political Paradox”

10:45 Break

11:00 Neil Turnbull: “Federal Populism and its Failure as Regionalism”

11:45 Michael Marder: “In the Name of the Law: Schmitt and the Metonymic Abuses of Legitimacy”

12:30 Lunch

Old Wars, New Wars

Chair: Tim Luke

1:30 Joseph Bendersky: “Horkheimer, ‘Militant Democracy,’ and War”

2:15 David Pan: “World Order and the Decline of U.S. Power: Soft or Hard Landing?”

3:00 Break

3:15 Adrian Pabst: “The Berlin Doctrine: Rethinking the Euro-Atlantic Community”

4:00 Ernie Sternberg: “Left Fascism”

4:45 Closing Discussion

Essentialism is Not Unique to the West


[H/t Elder of Ziyon]

Essentialism views races, social classes or cultures as possessing a specific set of characteristics or properties. Back in my grad school days many of my colleagues associated essentialist ideologies with the Western world. They tied essentialism with capitalism, colonization and imperialism. Very few were able to grasp the idea that non-Western peoples also hold essentialist views. Here is a typical statement from the Essentialism Page (Emory University):

In a specifically postcolonial context, we find essentialism in the reduction of the indigenous people to an “essential” idea of what it means to be African/Indian/Arabic, thus simplifying the task of colonization.

How about when “the colonized” articulates a similar perspective? Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University, writes:

The equation of victory and defeat between the Arabs and the Zionist state has always been and will remain zero equation. This means that when Israel is defeated, Arabs have the right to celebrate victory.

Hatred of Israel can be found in the genes of all Arabs. Although it is hereditary, its intensity varies from time to time. [emphasis mine]

Essentialism, it appears, is hardly unique to the West. As Elder of Ziyon reminds readers:

This is not some crazy member of the “Arab street”. This is someone who has a respected job as an intellectual, who is saying that anything that is bad for Israel is, by definition, good for the Arabs. The Arab world, and a large number of its supporters, look at the Middle East as a zero-sum game where when one side wins, the other loses.

History shows that this is not an isolated opinion; in fact, it is still mainstream Arab opinion. Even as pragmatic and moderate a leader as Jordan’s King Abdullah reveals that he still looks at the conflict the same way, that what is good for Israel is bad for the Arab world, although Abdullah is much more nuanced.

Westerners must understand this mindset. We grow up with the idea ingrained in us that the best solutions to problems are “win-win”, where each side can gain or at least compromise in ways where their losses are minimized. This is so obvious to most Westerners that we cannot conceive of a mentality that is exactly the opposite – that if I win, you must lose, and vice versa.

Negative and Positive Content of Political Beliefs


Gabriel Noah Brahm’s review in the recent Democratiya had me thinking about the following question, are political beliefs/ideologies defined primarily by their positive content or by their opposition(s)?

Here is the relevant section:

Somewhere along the line, the idea took hold that, to be an intellectual, you have to be against it, whatever it is. The intellectual is the negator. Affirmation is not in his or her vocabulary. It was not always so…. [but] For those of us who entered adulthood in the 1960s, to be an intellectual was to be in opposition. [Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, New York: Basic Books, 2003.].

Brahm adds:

That is—so long as ‘it’ refers to American power or anything else regarded as ‘white,’ ‘Western’ or ‘male.’ When, on the other hand ‘it’ refers to something non-white, non-Western, non-male, affirmation is nearly all the intellectual can find in his (or her) vocabulary. In an age of so-called ‘multiculturalism,’ the reverse of Elshtain’s point is equally apposite. It forms the other half of the stupid discursive equation that prevents some—particularly on the ‘left’—from seeing the threats that people like Amis, Hitchens and Bernard-Henri Levy see clearly.

The intellectual historian George Nash describes a similar process at work among American conservative intellectuals in the post-WWII era. These conservatives were united in their opposition to New Deal policies. However, the various schools of conservative thought–traditionalists, libertarians and anti-Communists–lacked a common vision of what they stood for.

After the collapse of the Vital Center, many conservative intellectuals adopted a perspective similar to Whittaker Chambers, where the line from liberal Democrat to democratic socialist to revolutionary communist was a straight one with little deviation or distinction. Similarly, in the post WWII era, just about any anti-Communist regime, no matter how unsavory, was supported by most of these conservative intellectuals. So is this situation of the intellectual as negator really unique to those Brahm terms the “post-left”?

I discussed this matter a few times with Bob specifically regarding the anarcho-left. When I was still involved in the movement there seemed so much more emphasis on what we were against, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. Much less emphasis was placed on what we stood for, a libertarian social revolution and a classless society. This is not unique to anarchists. In the United States, various Marxist/Leninist/Maoist/Trotskyist groups took a similar approach, emphasizing opposition to capitalism and anti-imperialism and downplaying their support for a dictatorship of the proletariat.*

I always thought this was a major problem. I argued people were more likely to support ideologies, organizations, and movements with a positive program than a mostly negative one. Yet recent research conducted by neuroscientists suggests human beings are more animated by feelings of opposition and disgust than by notions of solidarity. To provide one example, Psychologist Mark Lepper showed ten Republican partisans and ten Democratic partisans images of John Kerry and President George W. Bush. When partisans viewed their favored candidate, brain scans revealed no exceptional behavior. When either viewed the object of their indignation, Lepper observed a flurry of activity in two areas of the brain concerned with emotional regulation, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. Partisans also displayed increased activity in the temporal pole and insula. Both are areas of the brain associated with negative emotions that are activated when partisans viewed a photo of the opposing candidate. Shankar Vedantham, writing on the results of the study notes, “Although it seems paradoxical that people would want to make themselves feel poorly…partisans have a strong interest in feeling poorly about the candidate they are not going to vote for as that cements their belief that they are doing the right thing.” Simply stated, we seem more likely to act (and react) in opposition to those we stand against than rally in support of those we stand with.

[*One fairly obvious reason for this approach is the lack of popular support for communism or anarchism among most Americans.]

What is Your “Teaching Philosophy”?


[H/t Varnam whose post discusses the influence of Marxist, Nationalist and Orientalist historiography in India. Have a look. I also want to thank Varnam for introducing me to Maps of War. Watch 5,000 years of imperialism and conquest in the Middle East play in 90 seconds.]

Whenever I go on academic job interviews or send out application packages the interviewers always want to know my “teaching philosophy”. It is often hard to know what they are looking for. Do they want trendy , “I take a post-colonial approach to questions of race, class and gender, comparing the resistance strategies of subaltern groups to empire and oppression, blah, blah, blah” . Or do they want old-school, “I teach the historians craft, an emphasis on archival research, sourcing, contextualizing, close reading, and corroborating.”

If you are in the second group, here is a simple video presentation that may assist you with your beginning students. Many of my students arrive at college or university with little, if any, understanding of what historians actually do. They know we study the past but beyond that it is all a mystery to them.

The video is from Historical Thinking Matters:

Boring names, facts, dates – this is history for a lot of people. But historians think about history differently. They see themselves as detectives, often unsure about what happened, what it means, and rarely able to agree amongst themselves. This process of trying to figure out things you don’t already know is as different from mindless memorization as you can get.

Varnam writes:

[W]hat we need are historians who understand the social, economic, political and cultural context in which the events happened and are able to write history with that perspective. By sourcing, contextualizing, close reading and corroborating source materials, historians can come up with an analysis of what really happened.

[read it all here]

On Nonviolence


I recently posted some comments to an article regarding non-violence and revolution which seemed to argue that “good” revolutions are non-violent and “bad” revolutions use terrorism. It seemed a tad simplistic so I posted some criticisms regarding this and the author’s rather haphazard use of the term karma. The author did not take this is in a positive light. I didn’t think I said anything too harsh but apparently I can be more rude than I realize. So I apologized and moved on.

But then I read this post by Sultan Knish and realized I could have stated things much more stridently than I did:

Gandhi’s tactic of non-violence is often foolishly credited with the peaceful liberation of India. This claim would be more impressive if the British Empire hadn’t expired but was still around with a large retinue of colonies, instead of having disposed of its colonies, many around the same time as India. And considering the bloodshed of Partition, despite Gandhi’s best attempts at appeasing Muslims it was hardly peaceful. Yet despite the hypocrisies that have dotted Gandhi’s life, his ideas continue to have a powerful hold on the Western imagination.

Few would seriously argue that had Gandhi been facing Imperial Japan (whose brutal conquest of Asia he briefly supported) or Nazi Germany or even the British Empire of the 19th century, that non-violence would have been nothing more than an invitation to a bullet. Yet that is exactly what first world nations are expected to do when confronted with terrorism. Not long after 9/11 slogans were already appearing on posters challenging, “What would Gandhi do?”

We can hazard a guess at what the man who urged Britain to surrender to Hitler and told the Jews to walk into the gas chambers, would do. We can do better than guess at the outcome. The same outcome that surrender to tyranny always brings, whether in the name of non-violence, cowardice or political appeasement, a great heap of skulls shining in the sun.

[read it all]

Thanks, Sultan. You made my day.

Identifying the Fourth Wave of Terrorism


[H/t Contentious Centrist. This post was prompted by Norman Geras’ critique of a “thoroughly confusionist” article by lawyer Waleed Aly which attempts to obscure the definition of terrorism. More discussion here.]

As others have pointed out, I don’t think the answer to the question “what is terrorism?” is as difficult as Mr. Aly makes it out to be. Terrorism is the intentional targeting of civilians and noncombatants by nonstate actors for political purposes. Those who argue otherwise are, in most cases, seeking to conflate the use of violence by state and nonstate actors (for example, Noam Chomsky’s critique of “state terror”).

Jean Bethke Elshtain (American Educator, Summer 2003) writes:

In a situation in which noncombatants are deliberately targeted and the murder of the maximum number of noncombatants is the explicit aim, using terms like “fighter” or “soldier” or “noble warrior” is not only beside the point but pernicious. Such language collapses the distance between those who plant bombs in cafés or fly civilian aircraft into office buildings and those who fight other combatants, taking the risks attendant upon military forms of fighting. There is a nihilistic edge to terrorism: It aims to destroy, most often in the service of wild and utopian goals that make no sense at all in the usual political ways.

The distinction between terrorism, domestic criminality, and what we might call “normal” or “legitimate” war is vital to observe. It helps us to assess what is happening when force is used. This distinction, marked in historic, moral, and political discourses about war and in the norms of international law, seems lost on those who call the attacks of September 11 acts of “mass murder” rather than terrorism and an act of war under international law.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the ideology directly associated with terrorism was anarchism. Anarchists, advocating what they termed “propaganda by deed,” attempted to assassinate heads of state, religious leaders, members of the monarchy, and economic elites. Benedict Anderson notes:

Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 by bomb-throwing radicals calling themselves The People’s Will was followed over the next twenty-five years by the killing of a French president, and Italian monarch, an Austrian empress and an heir-apparent, a Portuguese king and his heir, a Spanish prime minister, two America presidents, a king of Greece, a king of Serbia, and powerful conservative politicians in Russia, Ireland and Japan.

For the anarchists and other radical advocates of attentats, the significance of the act transcended the individual perpetrator and victim. The most devoted revolutionaries believed, dreamed, these acts would set a spark in the minds of the public. That their “noble act” would inspire others to do the same. The stereotypical image of the mad, black-cloaked anarchist, bomb in hand, was born.

In addition to the anarchists, David Rappoport, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, identifies three additional waves of terrorism. The second wave was fostered by anti-colonial movements, the third by the New Left and the current wave is typified by religiously motivated violence:

The “Anarchist wave” was the first global or truly international terrorist experience in history; the “anticolonial wave” began in the 1920s and lasted about forty years. Then came the “New Left wave,” which diminished greatly as the twentieth century closed, leaving only a few groups active today in Nepal, Spain, the United Kingdom, Peru and Colombia. In 1979 a “religious wave” emerged; if the pattern of its three predecessors is relevant, it could disappear by 2025, at which time a new wave might emerge. The uniqueness and persistence of the wave experience indicates that terror is deeply rooted in modern culture.

Read Professor Rappoport’s Four Waves of Modern Terrorism here.