I’m grateful to everyone who has responded so far to my recent challenge, and has taken the time, either in the comments or on their own blogs, to explain their attachment to anarchism. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend following the links. I found the responses extremely enlightening, and they’ve provided me with a rich menu of names, references and links to follow up in due course. As the Plump said in his comment, I need to do some reading.
A few brief and inconclusive comments way of a response to the responses (and in the hope of prompting further debate):
As I read the responses, the fundamental appeal of anarchism seems to be that (in the words of The New Centrist) it’s ‘the only form of radical socialism that takes liberty – in the classical sense – and individual freedom seriously’. Or as others have said, anarchism is about ‘equality in liberty’. For most of my respondents, anarchism appears to offer an appealing alternative to the anti-democratic, centralizing tendencies of communism. It provides a way of holding on to radical ideas of societal change, in the wake of the implosion of State socialism, and/or personal disillusionment with communism.
I share my anarcho-phile comrades' disillusionment with state socialism, and their desire to recapture the emphasis on liberty at the heart of the progressive movement. But I suppose my question back to them is: what’s wrong with the long and honourable tradition of democratic socialism? I’d agree that the liberal, self-organising and voluntarist strain in that tradition has often been buried beneath bureaucratism and paternalism, but isn’t attempting to recover it more realistic than the romantic insurrectionism of anarchism?
Which leads me to a further question. Anarchist critics of state socialism claim it’s the centralism of the latter that lead inevitably to tyranny – but isn’t tyranny just as much the result of communism’s insurrectionism, which it shares with anarchism? Isn’t the belief that radical change can only come by sweeping away all vestiges of the old order inherently authoritarian, and doesn’t it always result in coercion of some kind? TNC quotes Michael Seidman on the way in which, historically, some anarchists have used coercion to initiate collectives. Isn’t the kind of revolutionary change envisioned by anarchists intrinsically coercive, and therefore likely to have illiberal consequences?
As Roland says, anarchism on anything other than a local scale is unlikely to work, since ‘its adherents must accept that their voluntary cooperative community cannot survive, or it will force the dissidents into line.’ And TNC writes that ‘when utopian ideals are implemented they lead to dystopian realities.’ He believes that Hobbes was right: ‘Human beings need the State in order to have what we know as civilization’. You don’t have to be a Hobbesian pessimist about human nature to agree – maybe just a realist. The Plump pointed to a basic tenet of anarchism that seems to be part of its appeal: the belief that ‘people are able to organise themselves without external coercion.’ Without coercion, perhaps, but not without organisation.
Maybe my distrust of anarchism, and my preference for the slow, grinding business of peaceful democratic change – the long march through the institutions – derives from my early experiences, whether in evangelical splinter groups or in ‘radical’ workplaces, which have left me with a distrust of purists and utopians. Or perhaps they're the outcome of even earlier experiences, as the quiet child in the classroom or playground, sensing that, in the absence of proper structures and due process, it was always the loudest and most shrill voices that held sway, and that those processes, however flawed, were the only way of ensuring that the quieter voices got heard.
These disconnected comments probably reflect my ignorance of anarchist thinking, and I'm happy to have the gaps in my understanding pointed out....Let the debate continue.