A Brief History of Anarchism
Proudhon and the birth of anarchism
Bakunin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism
Kropotkin and the Rise of Communist-Anarchism
Two Russian Revolutions (1905 and 1917)
Anarchism under social democracy
The return of class struggle anarchism
This is a write-up of a talk I gave at Housemans bookshop for An Anarchist FAQ volume 2 publication event. It is based on my notes and is what I intended to cover. So it may not be exactly what was said on the night. And as one member of the audience rightly noted, it is very much focused around white, male Europeans. This is simply because there is still much work needed to get the ideas and histories of non-European countries into English (sadly, this also applies to much of European anarchism as well!). Still, we need to correctly understand anarchist history in order to develop it to meet the challenges of today. Hopefully this talk contributes to both processes, correctly understanding the history of anarchism and building anarchism today as a theory and movement. Whether I succeeded or not rests with the reader!
Almost always books on anarchist pursue a chronological order, starting in the dim and distant past and highlighting what is usually called “the family tree.” Then it moves on to discuss the “Great Men” of anarchism, starting with William Godwin, before moving on to Proudhon, Stirner, and so on.
This, however, is wrong. Anarchism did not develop this way. There is an element of truth in this approach, insofar as many different people and movements have expressed anarchistic ideas and have been called anarchists by their enemies (notably in both the English and French Revolutions). However, these thinkers and movements did not create anarchism or the anarchist movement.
The facts are that “anarchist” was first used in a positive sense by Proudhon in his 1840 work What is Property? and anarchism developed after this as a named socio-economic theory and movement. Modern (revolutionary) anarchism developed in International Working Men’s Association in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Given this, I will be presenting a chronological account of anarchism and will start with Proudhon. This is important as the likes of William Godwin and Max Stirner had no impact on development of anarchism as both were rediscovered in the 1890s.
I am going to focus this talk around specific people and organisations. However, I must stress that this is not hero worship – anarchism is not Proudhonism, Bakuninism, whoeverism. However, these people are a handy source of ideas and reflect wider discussions and movements and so from a presentation point of view, useful.
Needless to say, anarchism was not born perfect and complete in 1840. It has evolved, developed and changed based on changing objective circumstances, current events and new developments. That will become clear as this talk progresses.
Proudhon and the birth of anarchism
Anarchism as a named socio-economic theory starts when Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote What is Property? in 1840 and proclaimed “I am an anarchist” within its pages. This seminal work defined anarchism, namely as anti-capitalist and anti-state.
Proudhon’s genius was that he used the defences of property to attack it. He showed how exploitation happened, in production. The worker “has sold and surrendered his liberty” to the boss who appropriates their “collective force.” Hence “Property is Theft!” He called for the abolition of property, arguing that the “right to product is exclusive… the right to means is common.” In addition, it advocated industrial democracy (unlike, it should be noted, the Utopian Socialists).
Reiterated this analysis in System of Economic Contradictions, written in 1846. This work is raised the core libertarian idea that change had to come “from below” and, unsurprisingly, attacked Utopian Socialism for contrasting visions to reality. He stressed the need for radicals to analyse capitalism, to find its tendencies and identify those that point to a post-capitalist system. As part of this analysis he indicated (to use Marxist terminology) that exploitation was the due to the difference between labour and labour-power and argued for the abolition of wage-labour: “the organisation of labour, which involves the negation of political economy and the end of property”
He also made the key anarchist insight that the state was instrument of class rule, which could not be captured and used for reform as it was “enchained” to capital. This meant that the working class had to create “an industrial-agricultural combination” to ensure social transformation, an idea which later anarchists would apply in the labour movement.
I must note that System of Economic Contradictions is not an easy work, but it is worth the effect – and do not let Marx’s distortions put you off.
The next key event in the history of anarchism was the 1848 Revolution. Proudhon took an active part in it from the start, using his skills as a printer to create the first proclamations of the new Republican government. He also contributed to the political debates, seeking to influence it in a libertarian direction.
He presented a critique of centralised representative democracy in which he raised the call for mandates and recall of elected delegates, a basic principle of socialist ideas to which even Leninists pay lip-service. He also urged that political change be transformed into social change, recognising that without economic change political change would be limited. He also stressed that radicals had to look forward, not backwards – that they had to create, not re-create the glories of the past (specifically the Great French Revolution) – and that workers committees had to be formed to pressurise the state into radical social and economic reform.
His ideas at this time are reflected in his Election Manifesto of November 1848, a classic summary of his ideas. He reiterated his call for mandating and recall of delegates and added the fusion of executive into assemblies. Economically, he presented a vision of self-managed socialism which is still at the heart of anarchism:
“under universal association, ownership of the land and of the instruments of labour is social ownership… We want… democratically organised workers’ associations… [and a] vast federation of companies and societies, joined together in the common bond of the democratic and social Republic”
Echoing his previous works, he argued that we needed to replace the state with a new “social organisation” and called for revolution from below and not above. This would produce a radical decentralised federal system:
“Unless democracy is a fraud, and the sovereignty of the People a joke, it must be admitted that each citizen in the sphere of his industry, each municipal, district or provincial council within its own territory, is the only natural and legitimate representative of the Sovereign”
He built upon these ideas in subsequent works, placing federalism at the heart of anarchism with 1863’s The Federative Principle and urging working people to organise themselves separately from the bourgeois system in the book he was working on in his death bed, The Political Capacity of the Working Classes. The aim was “not an abstract sovereignty of the people, as in the Constitution of 1793… or as in Rousseau’s Social Contract, but an effective sovereignty of the working, reigning, governing masses… how could it be otherwise if they are in charge of the whole economic system including labour, capital, credit, property and wealth?”
As can be seen, Proudhon’s critique of capitalism and the state, his federalism, advocacy of self-management and change from below, defined what anarchism is: libertarian socialism. Subsequent anarchists build upon these political and economic foundations.
The First International
By the time of his death, Proudhon’s ideas were well known in working class circles. They were the basis on which the French mutualists worked with British trade unionists to create the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA).
It may come as a surprise to many, but this organisation was not created by Marx – he was simply invited to its founding congress. It is also necessary to note that we do not know much about its debates and that many radicals think they know is often wrong (for example, the “collectivism” debates which were primarily between the followers of Proudhon and focused solely on land ownership as both sides agreed on the need to collectivise industry).
The IWMA is important in the evolution of anarchism for it was here that libertarians first applied Proudhon’s ideas from 1846 on “an industrial-agricultural combination” in the labour movement. This saw the rise of the idea that unions should be the means of both fighting capitalism and replacing it. As such, it saw the replacement of Proudhon’s reformist anarchism with revolutionary anarchism.
It was the Belgium section which argued this perspective at Brussels conference in 1868. Thus unions were required for “the necessities of the present, but also the future social order” and were “the embryos of the great workers’ companies which will one day replace the capitalist companies with their thousands of wage-earners.” This, it must be stressed, was pure Proudhon, right down to the words used. It was also a common position in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland – in other words, what would become the libertarian (or anti-authoritarian) wing of the IWMA.
Bakunin and the rise of revolutionary anarchism
It was into this ferment of ideas stepped Michael Bakunin who helped develop revolutionary anarchism as a result of joining IWMA. He first raised the idea of a federation of workers’ groups as the framework of a socialist society in 1868:
“the Alliance of all labour associations ... will constitute the Commune ... and a Revolutionary Communal Council ... [made up of] delegates ... invested with binding mandates and accountable and revocable at all times ... all provinces, communes and associations ... [will] found the federation of insurgent associations, communes and provinces ... and to organise a revolutionary force with the capacity of defeating the reaction”
This vision was part of a focus on workers economic struggle, with Bakunin arguing that the “natural organisation of the masses… is organisation by trade association” and “for the International to be a real power, it must be able to organise within its ranks the immense majority of the proletariat… of all lands.” He also raised the idea of the General Strike as a means of achieving the social revolution, considering it as “a great cataclysm which forces society to shed its old skin.”
Bakunin raised these syndicalist ideas against Marx and his attempts to commit the IWMA to “political action.” He correctly predicted that such electioneering would produce reformism within the ranks of labour and that the dictatorship of the proletariat would become dictatorship over the proletariat. This was because of his analysis of the state, recognising that you cannot use any state to create socialism as it is inherently top-down. Instead socialism had to come from below by new social organisation based on workplaces. This meant that unions “bear in themselves the living germs of the social order, which is to replace the bourgeois world. They are creating not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.”
These ideas are still at the heart of anarchism and so Kropotkin was right to argue that “[w]ithin these federations [of the IWMA] developed… modern anarchism.”
The Paris Commune
The next key event in the history of anarchism was the Paris Commune of 1871. This was a striking confirmation of many key anarchist ideas: mandates, recall, federalism, workers’ associations, and so on. This is unsurprising given that libertarians were heavily involved in the revolt, with the minority of its council being mutualist IWMA members (including Eugene Varlin).
Bakunin, rightly, proclaimed it as “a bold and outspoken negation of the State.” However, this was only at the national level. Locally the Communards had seized the local municipal council and so had set up “a revolutionary government” and so organised “themselves in reactionary Jacobin fashion, forgetting or sacrificing what they themselves knew were the first conditions of revolutionary socialism.” Instead they should have created workers councils, “the free association or federation of workers, firstly in their unions, then in the communes, regions, nations and finally in a great federation, international and universal” organised “solely from the bottom upwards.”
Later anarchists, notably Peter Kropotkin, expanded this analysis, stressing that a state (even a local one modified by anarchist principles) was not up to the tasks of a social revolution. This analysis, it must be noted, was confirmed recently by Leninist Donny Gluckstein who argued that the Commune “founded a new focus of power” but it was “overwhelmed” by suggestions from other bodies, the “sheer volume” of which “created difficulties” and so the council “found it hard to cope.” Sadly he failed to draw any of the very obvious conclusions these facts suggest, unlike Bakunin and Kropotkin.
Thus the Paris Commune played a key role in the development of anarchism – both in terms of theory (the need for federalism with and outwith the commune) and activists (Louise Michel was one of many Communards who played an important role in the movement in the decades after its suppression).
And before moving on, I must mention Marx’s The Civil War in France. This work is often pointed to as showing Marxism’s libertarian side and it is his most appealing work. This is unsurprising as it is reporting on the ideas and actions expressed (in the main) by Communards who were mutualists, that is followers of Proudhon. So it must be stressed that Marx simply repeats the ideas expressed by Proudhon in 1848 and by Bakunin twenty years later!
Kropotkin and the Rise of Communist-Anarchism
The crushing of the Commune saw the debates within the IWMA reach their peak. Attempts by Marx and Engels to turn it into a political party saw the libertarian wing produce the Sonvillier Circular of 1871 which reiterated the vision of the International as “the embryo of the human society of the future.”
These ideas were developed in 1872 when the anarchists gathered at St. Imier. They rejected “political action” in favour of economic struggle (or the “Organisation of Labour Resistance” as they put it) and argued that socialism would be created by “proletariat itself, its trades bodies and the autonomous communes.” This, needless to say, echoes Bakunin’s ideas and those previously raised in the libertarian wing of the IWMA.
However, anarchist ideas developed after Bakunin’s death in 1876. The most famous development is that anarchists started to question distribution according to deeds in favour of needs. The logic was simple, if means were common (as Proudhon and Bakunin had stressed) then so should the products created by them. While this is most associated with Peter Kropotkin, he did not invent communist-anarchism but rather took it up and became its most famous exponent.
Another less positive development was the rise of “propaganda by the deed.” After repression of the Commune, many thought revolutionary was around the corner. Anarchists organised armed revolts in Italy, which were complete failures (although they did have some impact in terms of raising public awareness of anarchist ideas). Some became focused on extremist rhetoric (or ultra-revolutionary posing), particularly in France were unions were outlawed after the Commune (and not to mention the activity of police agents).
Significantly, Kropotkin argued against “propaganda by the deed” and contrasted “the spirit of revolt” to it. Instead, he urged that anarchists take part in popular movements and so had the same focus on labour movement in Kropotkin as in Bakunin. As he argued in 1881:
“We have to organise the workers’ forces – not to make them into a fourth party in Parliament, but in order to make them a formidable MACHINE OF STRUGGLE AGAINST CAPITAL. We have to group workers of all trades under this single purpose: ‘War on capitalist exploitation’! And we must prosecute that war relentlessly, day by day, by the strike, by agitation, by every revolutionary means.”
This perspective reflected common anarchist practice, both in the IWMA and at the time. Thus the 1880s saw anarchists organising revolutionary unions in (to name a few countries) Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Argentina and most famously, in Chicago – as seen from the birth of May Day.
Some claim that the Chicago Martyrs created a “synthesis” of Anarchism and Marxism but this is simply wrong. Rather, they were Marxists who turned to anarchism based on their experiences. This can be seen from how they rejected “political action” and embraced economic struggle and organisation. As Albert Parsons put it, “Trades Unions [are] the embryonic group of the future ‘free society.’ Every trade union is… an autonomous commune in process of incubation.”
In short, the Chicago anarchists’ position was identical to Bakunin’s. I must also note that the legal lynching of the Chicago Martyrs lead to many joining the movement – including the likes of Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre – which included many active in the 1880s struggles, such as Lucy Parsons, Albert’s widow,
The rise of syndicalism
We are now in the 1890s, the decade when William Godwin and Max Stirner were discovered by the movement and
However, key development of the decade was the rise of syndicalism in France. I must stress here that the standard view of this decade is false. Rather than anarchists turning to syndicalism in the mid-1890s, in reality it was by the early 1890s that most anarchists in France saw the need for libertarian involvement in mass action and organisations. Kropotkin, for example, had returned to advocating anarchist involvement in the labour movement in 1889 and it was surely imprisonment and then exile in Britain which delayed his return to the ideas he had raised in the late 1870s and early 1880s.
The so-called “peak” of “propaganda by deed” was in 1892–4, which was years after the arguments had been made and won within the movement and many anarchists had already entered the unions in France. Soon syndicalist ideas started to be better known internationally and thriving revolutionary unions and syndicalist propaganda groups appeared across the globe. This popularity is unsurprising, given the obvious reformism and bureaucracy of Social Democracy – which strikingly confirmed Bakunin’s warnings in the IWMA.
And talking of Bakunin, if you compare his ideas and syndicalism the links between the two are very clear. Thus we find the syndicalist CGT’s 1906 Charter of Amiens arguing that “the trade union today is an organisation of resistance” and “in the future [it will] be the organisation of production and distribution.” This was simply repeating what anarchists had been arguing since the late 1860s in the IWMA – as Kropotkin and Malatesta repeated pointed out even if they were critical of certain aspects of syndicalism.
Two Russian Revolutions (1905 and 1917)
The 1905 Russian Revolution saw anarchist ideas on direct action, workers organisations (soviets) and general strike spontaneously appear, so proving anarchists internationally with a striking confirmation of their ideas. Its impact was also felt in the wider socialist movement, with radical Social Democrats arguing for the General strike – and their Orthodox colleagues simply quoting Engels back at them!
The anarchist movement in Russia was small and Kropotkin and his colleagues sought to influence the movement towards strategies which would increase its influence and size, namely participation in popular struggles and organisations. They argued that the struggle for political reform had to be transformed into a social revolution and expropriate capital, with unions being the “natural organs for the direct struggle with capitalism and for the composition of the future order.” They had some success but the spread of anarchism after 1905 was undermined by reaction.
Twelve years later and revolution returned to Russia. Anarchists were very influential during 1917, pushed the Bolsheviks to the left. Indeed, after Lenin returned to Russia the Bolsheviks (as Alexander Berkman noted) took up the ideas the anarchists had long been advocating and had popularised in 1905.
Given this, many anarchists seemed to believe that the Bolsheviks were genuine and co-operated with them during the October Revolution. Sadly, Bakunin’s predictions became true.
Politically, Bolsheviks undermined soviets, creating an executive over the soviets the same night of the revolution (in direct contradiction to Lenin’s The State and Revolution). Initially they had popular support, however the government’s inability to solve the problems facing the revolution and the increasing isolation of the new state bodies saw the Bolsheviks gerrymandering the soviets to maintain their majorities and, when this failed, disbanded any that managed to get a non-Bolshevik majority elected. The new political police, the Cheka, repressed any protests and strikes.
All happened this before the start of the Civil War in May 1918, the usual culprit trotted out by Leninists to excuse Bolshevik authoritarianism. This move to single-party rule became irreversible with the Bolshevik gerrymandering of the Fifth All-Russian Congress which denied the Left-SRs their majority, leading to their assassination of the German Ambassador and subsequent crushing by the Bolsheviks. In short, by July 1918 the so-called “workers’ state” had become a one-party state and by January 1919 this was reflected politically in Bolshevik ideology, which now proclaimed the need for a party dictatorship a truism for any revolution.
Economically, the Bolsheviks created state capitalism. After arguing for some form of limited workers’ control (or, more correctly, supervision) of the capitalists in April 1918 Lenin advocated “dictatorial” one-man management by state-appointees. This simply handed the economy over to the bureaucracy and, unsurprisingly, this new centralised economic institutions helped destroy the economy. In short, all of the problems anarchists had highlighted in the Paris Commune were repeated but on a far larger scale.
So anarchist theory was confirmed negatively insofar as our critique of Marxism and the so-called “workers’ state” was proven correct. However, it was also confirmed positively by the Makhnovist movement in the Ukraine, which was the anarchist movement’s biggest success. As would be expected with any real mass movement in the extreme circumstances of a revolutionary war it was not perfect but it promoted soviet democracy, workers’ self-management, freedom of speech, assembly, organisation, and so on – unlike the Bolsheviks.
This is a controlled experiment, if you like…and a striking confirmation of anarchist theory and practice.
The 1920s and 1930s
The Russian revolution was not an isolated event – revolutions and revolutionary situations occurred globally, inspired by its example. Sad to say, anarchist influence in revolutionary situation that swept Europe and elsewhere is still to be written. However, our activity in the Italian Factory Occupations is best known and our principled advocacy of a united front was rejected by both the socialists and communists, so leading to both the defeat of the revolution and the rise of fascism. Some Marxists came to libertarian conclusions, such as the German council communists.
However, anarchism became marginalised in many countries. The French CGT, for example, was taken over by the Communist Party and many activists, including some anarchists, were taken in by what Berkman termed The Bolshevik Myth. Faced with the apparent success of the Russian Revolution (not to mention the funds the USSR provided), many radicals who would have otherwise joined the anarchist movement did not. In other countries, anarchist movements were crushed by fascism.
The Spanish Revolution was a bright spark in the dark decades between the wars. Franco’s military rising was defeated on the streets in most major towns and social revolution quickly broken out. Anarchist workers in the CNT (a syndicalist union) took over their workplaces and land, forming self-managed collectives. This, I must stress, was neither planned nor desired but reflected the actual situation so imperfect in terms of the ideal advocated by anarchist theory or CNT policy. However, they applied many anarchist ideas successfully and showed that workers could run an economy as anarchists since Proudhon had argued.
Significantly, the example of Spain is often invoked by Marxists as an example of socialism – Tommy Sheridan’s book Imagine, for example, concentrated on Spain as its example, not Russia. And it is funny to see Trotskyists praising CNT for things Trotsky destroyed in Russia (such as workers’ self-management and militia democracy).
But, of course, the CNT joined the government. Why? While Trotskyists like to portray this as the inevitable result of anarchist theory the truth is different. If you look at what the circumstances CNT leadership made their decision and their defence of their (wrong) decision, it becomes clear that it was not libertarian theory which was its root but rather fear of isolation in Catalonia and the distinct possibility if they were to go for social revolution then they would have to fight not only the fascist military but also the Republic and, possibly, international intervention.
So circumstances lead to a mistaken decision, although it should be noted that the decision to postpone the revolution was ignored by the membership of the CNT and they expropriated capital, organised collectives and militias – as advocated in anarchist theory.
Some may say that this analysis mirrors the standard Trotskyist one on the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, namely that Stalinism was the product of the Civil War and isolation rather than Leninist ideology. This is wrong simply because the CNT did not apply their ideas while the Bolsheviks applied their ones!
Anarchism under social democracy
During the Second World War most anarchists opposed the war as a clash of imperialist powers, arguing for social revolution. In Britain, the movement revived while in Europe many anarchists joined the resistance. With the defeat of fascism in 1945 the expected revolutionary situation did not materialise (unlike after the First World War). Anarchists were now faced with a reformed capitalism, one in which the state was used to blunt the worse excesses of the economy
This lead to anarchists needing to extend their critique of the state from the warfare state to the welfare state and Colin Ward took a lead in this, discussing how we can apply anarchist ideas in the here-and-now rather than waiting for some glorious revolution. Another extension of anarchist ideas came in the 1960s, when we saw the work of Murray Bookchin which brought to the fore the ecological aspects of anarchism. His work was ground breaking work in many fields, with Post-Scarcity Anarchism and Toward an Ecological Society classics of libertarian thought. Sadly, Bookchin was tied to his Marxist background and his crude equation of proletariat with industrial workers helped to undermine the class struggle aspects of anarchism. In France, Daniel Guérin did important work in making anarchist ideas accessable to a new generation, particularly with his introduction Anarchism: From Theory to Practice.. The English translation of this excellent work was introduced by Noam Chomsky, an anarchist whom it is fair to say is probably the best known in non-anarchist circles.
Elsewhere, we saw many Marxists come to anarchist conclusions – although I’m sure they would deny that or, at least, not put it that way. The likes of Cornelius Castoriadis, The Situationists, Maurice Brinton and Solidarity raised ideas which had been advocated by anarchists since 1840 – workers’ self-management, workers’ councils, and so on. Their works were, unsurprisingly, popular in anarchist circles and are still worth reading. Significantly, the orthodox Marxists labelled them “anarcho-Marxists” (as did some anarchists, apparently ignorant of revolutionary anarchism’s basic ideas!).
All this came to the surface in 1968 when France was rocked by a near social revolution. The Black Flag fluttering over the Sorbonne made it clear – anarchism was back.
The return of class struggle anarchism
The 1970s and 80s saw in some ways a divergence in anarchism, particularly in Britain. Class struggle (“traditional”) anarchism being replaced somewhat by warmed-up liberalism or life-stylism (the notion that changing how we live was sufficient to achieve social change).
This was reflected in Freedom, which by the time I first bought in 1987 was terrible. However, you had the likes of DAM (now the Solidarity Federation), ACF (now the Anarchist Federation), many local groups and Black Flag newspaper (associated with Albert Meltzer) so it was not too bad.
Also during this time we saw rise of Monetarism and Thatcherism, the so-called attack on “the state” by neo-liberalism. Of course, anyone who argues that has a very superficial analysis given that “freeing the market” saw the forces of state coercion increased and centralised, with increased state regulation (control) of unions and protest. I should also refute a common fallacy as regards anarchist participation in anti-austerity or anti-privatisation struggle, namely the notion that anarchists, being against the state, are being illogical. However, anarchism is both anti-state and anti-capital and so increasing the latter by decreasing aspects of the former is not a step towards anarchism – and, anyway, what kind of anarchist sides with the government against its subjects?
The 1990s saw collapse of Stalinism, at long last. This saw a flurry of interest in anarchism which has continued. I also think that it was a blow to the left from which it has not really recovered, although there are still plenty of zombie parties still going and eating the brains of their members!
At the turn of the century, Anarchism was back in the headlines thanks to the so-called anti-globalisation protests, particularly Seattle. Argentina saw community assemblies and workplace occupations erupt in a popular revolt against neo-liberalism – it was if they had read Bakunin and Kropotkin one night and decided to apply it the next day! Impressive as it was, Argentina confirms what anarchists had long argued – spontaneity is not enough. Anarchists need to take an active part in such movements and help people draw the logical conclusions of their activity.
Now we see the Occupy Movement, which has its fair share of anarchists in it – and quite a few unknowing anarchists, applying libertarian principles because they make sense. Elsewhere, we seem to be seeing an attempted general reinvention of Marxism going on with the likes of the SWP keenly attempting to paint Marx and Lenin as an anti-statist, regardless of the facts or logic, while others are raising co-operatives as an alternative to statist central planning (without, of course, mentioning Proudhon!). This is significant and hopefully they will see pointlessness of trying to squeeze libertarian ideas into the corpse of Leninism and instead embrace anarchism – as many ex-members of these parties are doing.
So here we are, 173 years after Proudhon proclaimed “I am an Anarchist.” In many ways we are in a much better situation then when I became an anarchist over 25 years ago. Freedom is very improved, the London book fair is growing every year and there are many local ones appearing, the quality of books and papers is improving and our ideas are appearing in both struggles and discussions, often raised by people who do not call themselves anarchists or even libertarians. Unsurprisingly, as libertarian ideas are pretty much common sense.
And taking of which, that is one of the step backwards I have seen insofar as the American use of “libertarian” – that is, propertarian – has become more common in Britain. George Osborne, for example, had to deny he was a “libertarian” recently – as if he thought property was theft!
Still, overall things are in a good position. Traditional (“class struggle”) anarchism is again the dominant tread in the movement, although we must ensure that it stays that way by seeking to apply anarchist ideas in the here and now, to apply (to use Colin Ward’s term) Anarchy in Action. Theoretical clarity is never enough for a movement to survive and grow, we need a practical expression for our ideas. So I would argue that we need to support the following (in no particularly order).
Encourage co-operatives in all things – preferably by direct action and by occupying workplaces, housing, etc. Instead of advocating renationalisation like many of the so-called “radical” left, why not urge the turning over of the industries in question to workers’ association? And as someone who grew up in a council house, I think we can do better than urging a form of social housing which simply replaces the private landlord with a municipal one!
Encourage community assemblies, like anti-poll-tax groups of the late 1980s or the Haringey Solidarity Group. During the poll-tax revolt there was a network of groups across the country which could have been the basis of a community syndicalism, a self-managed neighbourhood forum by which a free community could be built while fighting the injustices of the current system. However, the anti-poll-tax movement was dominated by Militant who used it as the basis of building their party. In Scotland rather than a network of community unions we ended up with the Scottish Socialist Party, and we know how that ended.
Encourage self-managed workplace groups and unions, as advocated by anarchists since the late 1860s. Kropotkin’s words from 1907 still ring true: “Workmen’s organisations are the real force capable of accomplishing the social revolution… by collective action, by strikes… the anarchists have always believed that the working class movement – organised in each trade for the direct conflict with Capital (today in France it is called Syndicalism and ‘direct action’) constitutes, true strength, and is capable of leading up to the Social Revolution and realising it.”
Needless to say, such activity is easier to do collectively so I would urge you to get involved in an anarchist group or join one of the national federations. I would also urge you to contribute to the anarchist press, write leaflets as well as articles for Freedom and Black Flag and sell them at demos. We need to get our ideas out there if we want to see libertarian ideas grow and influence the class struggle! Social revolution will not drop into our laps so we need to fight for it both in terms of winning reforms and in the struggle of ideas.
As Proudhon argued during the 1848 revolution, we have to ensure that “a new society be founded in the centre of the old society.” If we do, then anarchism will grow and develop and we may well change both ourselves and the world for the better.