Ideas and Struggles: anarchism yesterday, today and tomorrow
Notes from ACG meeting on April 19th in London
Anarchism today is part of a long tradition of thought and struggle. This discussion meeting, presented by Brian Morris, will show how many of the ideas of past anarchists, such as Bakunin and Kropotkin, are still relevant today. The reason for this is that their ideas emerged from actual struggles of the working class. However, this does not mean that we should treat these ideas as religious doctrine. They were very much products of their time and issues such as the oppression of women were not at the forefront of their thinking. Though many of the fundamental conditions are still the same, like capitalism and the State, there have been many changes and new struggles which have become relevant. Therefore we need to look for new ideas. But where do we look? The corridors of universities or people involved in struggles? Brian will focus on environmentalism as one of the important new struggles.
The only political tradition that is worth anything today is anarchist communism; this is the tradition that comes from such anarchists as Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Goldman. In fact, their ideas are if anything more relevant than at any time in the past.
Bookchin, in 2002, suddenly declared that he was no longer an anarchist. Why at the age of 81 did he say this? Why does he trash his old heritage? But this is not actually the case. He was always a libertarian socialist/anarchist communist. What he meant was that he was not the kind of anarchist that emerged in the 1990s. He was against the ‘post-Left’ anarchists, anarcho-primitivists and other forms of so-called anarchism that emerged at that time. For example he was against those that looked to Nietzsche – a poetic rebellion, you don’t have to do anything, just express yourself. He was against Bahro in Germany who argued that the state of the world is so bad we need a Green Adolf. Bookchin was saying that if this is anarchism then he did not want to be an anarchist. The essential features of anarchism for Bookchin were a confederation of municipalities, a libertarian communist society and direct democracy.
What is anarchism?
There have always been anarchists around, eg hunter-gatherers- practice of sharing and individual freedom. In all societies there are example of people organising their social life. People have always rebelled. Some people argue that anarchism is just anti-State and anti-authority. A book written in 1900 by Fritz Brupbacher took the ‘seven sages’ approach and this has continued in other writings about anarchism until this day. These 7 are Godwin, Proudhon, Tucker, Stirner, Tolstoy, Bakunin and Kropotkin. When there was an upsurge in interest about anarchism in the 1960s, people who write books focused on the ideas of key people. For Peter Marshall, in his book Demanding the Impossible, he included everyone who was anti-State, including Thatcher. So with this 57 varieties of anarchism, the impression is one of complete incoherence.
But there is another way of looking at anarchism. It is not a group of ideas or rebellion against authority, it is a social and political movement which emerged in the 1870s. It is not based on iconic figures or celebrities. Bakunin and Kropotkin became known because they wrote books but they were part of the social movement that broke away from the 1st International in 1872 as a response to the authoritarian tendencies represented by Marx. It was not just a European movement and they didn’t call themselves anarchists, rather libertarian socialists or non-authoritarian socialists. One recent collection of essays argues that what we need is libertarian socialism that would bring together Marxists and anarchists. But this is incorrect as those who broke with the Marxists in the 19th century were already libertarian socialists. Other names include anarchist communism. The point is to bring together an emphasis on liberty with co-operation and equality.
Summary: Main features of anarchism.
1. They were against anything that restricts individuals’ freedom to develop their personality; the movement is anti-Marxist, anti-workers’ State.
2. They have always been anti-capitalist.
3. Vision of society based on mutual aid, and co-operation. Post-anarchists critique of anarchists is that they are starry-eyed idealists. They did have ideals, but they were historical thinkers. Humans have not always had a State or capitalism. There have always been elements of an anarchist communist society; it is a real possibility.
4. Anarchism is based on philosophy, defined as how we see the world. They learned a lot from Darwin and Marx. Their ideas are based in evolutionary naturalism- ours is a material world. This is the basis of Bakunin’s thought. There is no room for God or spirits. They are anti-religion.
What anarchist communists are against
Anarchist communists often define themselves in relation to others.
He is very popular amongst academics.. He is anti-authoritarian, anti-government. It is a book of rebellion. He argues against equality, freedom, morality, justice. He goes to the extreme with the autonomy of the individual. He wants power over others; the world must be his property if he is to gain full enjoyment. ‘The State is me’. For anarchist communists this autonomy is not the same as liberty. They do not see the individual as sovereign; you only have liberty as long as you respect the equal liberty of others. It is human solidarity that is also important.
Anarchists began as a movement that critiqued Marx.
3. Individualist anarchists
They gained their inspiration from Proudhon and then Tucker. Examples of these are American liberals who are keen on private property, the market system and competition.
4. Religious anarchists
Tolstoy doesn’t like the State or the Russian church. Still he believes in praying to God. Anarchist Studies publishes articles in support of religion, criticising the anarchist communist position. Anarchist communists are not against religion as such- you can believe what you want. But they are against using religion as a support for the political system. Religion sanctifies political power. Every system has used religion: India, China, Turkey. And all of these are pro-capitalist. In Mexico, the anarchist Magon spoke of the ‘dark trinity’- capitalism, political rulers and clerics.
The argument is that humans have gone wrong since the beginning of agriculture. But we cannot go back to being hunter-gatherers.
This comes from academics. They attempt to put together anarchism with modern theoeries, eg Lacan, Leotard, Heidegger, whatever is trendy at the moment. They are anti-reason, completely distorting the ideas of the earlier generation of anarchists. It is a slash and burn approach. You destroy what went before, accuse a whole generation of anarchists. But they have misunderstood the human subject and the concept of power. Bakunin did not see humans as a disembodied ego. We are social beings. They also use the concept of post-industrial, arguing that the working class has disappeared. But the working class is very much alive- not just production but services, tourism etc. Working people rather than producing people. And, industrial workers have not disappeared. They very much still present around the world. Bookchin said that we will not change anything without working people.
Some of the issues covered include:
1. The environment. Though early anarchists such as Reclus seemed concerned about the environment it was not until after WWII that the full impact of capitalism on the environment became apparent. Bookchin was talking about climate change back in the 70s. He disagreed with Marxists who seem to think that we will get control of nature through technology.
2. Many writers today are really just calling for Keynesian policies, eg Monbiot and Klein. They have a good analysis of what is going on but they are really just calling on the State to intervene to stop capitalism.
3. Discussion of why we need to create our own structures, our own mutual aid, eg Greece, Black Panthers.
4. Issues with academic anarchists who set themselves up as experts when they have no link to an actual social and political movement, unlike anarchist writers such as Bakunin. Academia puts various pressures on people, to be original- to come up with some supposed new idea- often that is phrased in such obscure terms that nobody can understand it. Anarchism should not be something that people make a career out of- it is a set of ideas and practices that need to be firmly embedded in a movement and developments of the ideas should come from experience of struggles.