Friday 28 August 2009

Anarchism: a challenge

I've been tagged quite a few times recently by my fellow-bloggers, so it's about time I issued a challenge of my own.

It hasn't escaped my attention that a number of the bloggers whose writings I read on a regular basis are pretty enthusiastic about anarchism and have a particular fondness for the anarchists of the Spanish republic of the 1930s. So much so that two of them even name-check particular anarchist (or anarchist-allied) grouplets from that era in their blog titles / identities. Even those whose politics have moved right- or democratic-left-wards seem to retain a fondness for their anarchist roots, evidenced in their links and reading recommendations.

I write as somebody who has never, in the many twists and turns of his political journey (from Tribunite Labourism via Gramscian Eurocommunism to anti-totalitarian liberal-democratic socialism), been drawn to anarchism, and knows precious little about it. I'm intrigued that people whose opinions I respect are still influenced by this political tradition, and wonder why they think it still has relevance.

Moreover, I question (genuinely - this is not meant to be provocative) whether their fascination with the Spanish anarchists of the Thirties is anything more than misty-eyed nostalgia for the only movement of the revolutionary left that didn't 'go bad'. (Or did it? Were the anarchist murders of priests and nuns during the Civil War any less barbarous than the Falangists' slaughter of anyone with a copy of Rousseau on their shelves?)

So I'm issuing a challenge - in the spirit of genuine intellectual curiosity, rather than political point-scoring. I'd like some of my anarchist-inclined blogging comrades (or anyone else who cares to respond) to explain to me - as briefly as they can - why they remain attracted to anarchism. Specifically, I'd like them to answer these questions:

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

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?

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?

Answers in the comments please - or if you want to take more space, on your own blog. I promise to include extracts from the most interesting responses in a future post.

Update (Saturday)
Responses are already in (see comments below) from The New Centrist, Brian, Les and Roland, plus a 'holding' message from Bob (and a longer response from Brigada on his own blog). I'm impressed. I'll do a proper round-up (and offer my own response to the responses) after the weekend (which lasts three days here in the UK, thanks to the late-summer bank holiday on Monday). In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has contributed so far - anybody else care to join in?

Update (Sunday)
A longer answer just in from The New Centrist - over at his blog. And from The Plump in the comments.

Update (Monday)
Just waiting for a couple more responses (Bob's promised one, and I'm still hoping Poumista will be tempted) before doing a final round-up. Watch this space.

Update (Thursday)
It's been a busy week, so I haven't got round to posting my 'response to the responses' yet. Will try to do so tomorrow.


TNC said...

Thanks for the tag. I will respond in greater detail at my blog.

“I'd like some of my anarchist-inclined blogging comrades (or anyone else who cares to respond) to explain to me - as briefly as they can - why they remain attracted to anarchism.”

It is the only form of radical socialism that takes liberty--in the classical sense--and individual freedom seriously. I realize this is a strong claim.

Also, anarchism not only provides a critique of capitalism (Marxism does a better or more thorough job of this) but of the State as well (I find Marxist analysis of the state to be far weaker than anarchist ones).

“Moreover, I question (genuinely - this is not meant to be provocative) whether their fascination with the Spanish anarchists of the Thirties is anything more than misty-eyed nostalgia for the only movement of the revolutionary left that didn't 'go bad'. (Or did it?)”

Very briefly, yes, it did go bad. See my comments here:

and here:

“Spain is obviously a complicated situation. Yes, on the one hand 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, harsh punitive measures for slackers, even forced collectivization which most anarchists fail to admit. As historian Michael Seidman writes, "A dispassionate examination of the charges and counter-charges 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) (see Michael Seidman Republic of Egos: A Social History of the Spanish Civil War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).”

bob said...

For me, that's quite a challenge, as I have quite a complex and conflictual relationship with anarchism. My correspondent Jogo has issued me a similar challenge, some time ago, so I've kind of written a long answer to him - in my head. So, I will get around to answering this, but not necessarily following your 3 questions exactly!

Sunset Bound said...

1: Equality in Liberty
A good person to start with is Emma Goldman. Anarchy as a political or social ideology cannot be adequately described in a dew short paragraphs. It would probably be more helpful if I provided you with a link. Start here...

2: Experiment is a poor choice of words. These were not folks who were trying a new way to live on a whim. They were actually living in Anarchy, however brief.

The Spanish revolution has much relevance today. In the same way that any significant historic event has bearing on folks today.

Perhaps more importantly is "why" is the Spanish revolution so important to anarchists. I cannot speak for all anarchists, but it is important to me because it is a great example of folks removing the State from governing over them. Arguably anarchism is the oldest and most successful type of societal living.

3: Your 3rd question is a great one. Implementation is getting into some pretty advanced anarchism. One that I do understand, but, in all candor, do not feel I can explain it properly. Is it possible or practical? I think yes two both.

I hope you'll continue your search on anarchism. Not because I want you to convert, but because even if you don't it is important that you and others understand where we are coming from.

Best of Luck and great questions!

post script: If you want to browse anarchist news and discussion or even post your questions visit us at

The folks there are much more knowledgeable than myself and are really nice people.

Anonymous said...

as a reader of your blog, i'd like to give some brief answers to your questions.

1. yes, equality in liberty, or as was proposed at the 1922 berlin congress of the international workers association (and i'm paraphrasing here), a society based on the twin principles of autonomy and solidarity. i think, in terms of a political philosophy, that was always anarchism's greatest strength and greatest contribution.

2. i feel it's partly leftwing nostalgia (although remember what walter benjamin said, that there's nothing worse than leftwing melancholy!), but also, partly, a recognition, that the spanish civil war marked the high point when the working class tried to refound or reorganize society on a different basis.

3. frankly, at this moment in time, i don't think anyone really knows the answer to that question, and i only wish more people would come to that same conclusion so we could begin to figure out how to get beyond our present impasse without reproducing, even if unwittingly, the failures of the past.


Roland Dodds said...

I agree with both Les and TNC, but I will add a few other points that are relevant in why a number of us still have a found fascination with Anarchist thought.

As for the Spanish Civil War, I think there is a sense of loss by some of us of the left in the “death to fascism” rallying cry that those in the Anarchist movement had at the time. With my own drift away from radical politics, especially after 9/11 and the Iraq War, I found that I could identify less and less with the anarchists and socialists of our day who seemed unconcerned with totalitarianism in the Islamic world. The “moral clarity” of the anarchist movement in the 1930s had been replaced with extreme relativism by today’s radicals.

I do not think Anarchism can work on any large scale, and that all Anarchists are either liberals or totalitarians at heart: when the voluntary system required to make Anarchism function fails, its adherents must accept that their voluntary cooperative community cannot survive, or it will force the dissidents into line. But within small enclaves, it can work, and I have seen it work.

Which leads into why I still have an affinity for Anarchist ideas and ideals. A few years back, I traveled around playing in bands, and we almost always played in anarchist-run houses or venues, and tapped into a community of people we didn’t know from coast to coast who would help us along the way. With age, I recognize that it was far from revolutionary, but the community was fueled by the idea that a group of people could make anything happen if they worked together, and could do so outside of dominion of money and power. I believe those ideas are still good ones to live by, even though I am not an anarchist.

Anonymous said...

roland (or anyone else who's reading this)--i'm not entirely comfortable when one conflates an emancipatory project like anarchism or socialism with the much abused word "community." in fact, i find it symptomatic that so many self-proclaimed anarchists can only seem to function in small, isolated or marginal groups, centered around life-style issues, or "the arts." please, don't misunderstand me, i'm not denigrating anyone's efforts to find a practical, realizable alternative, especially if it plays an important role in sustaining creative endeavors like music or poetry. but let's not blow that up out of proportion. community exists regardless of political ideology or political program. and i'm not even certain that community is the best word to use here in a situation where everything now seems to exist in a little niche market. but maybe, that's part of the problem. we've forgotten, or are no longer interested in that notion of emancipation or liberation, and the way that anarchism is currently practiced only seems to reinforce that tendency.


Roland Dodds said...

“but let's not blow that up out of proportion. community exists regardless of political ideology or political program.”

You are right anonymous. “Lifestyle Anarchism” is pretty much folks getting along together and that share a few core ideas. Nothing radical about that. But in our discussion about why some of us still look fondly upon anarchism and its ideals, I would say the experiences we had in anarchist communities are relevant to why the broader ideological concepts it encompasses are still prominent in our personal politics.

“we've forgotten, or are no longer interested in that notion of emancipation or liberation, and the way that anarchism is currently practiced only seems to reinforce that tendency.”

Most definitely. Which is one of the reasons why there is nostalgia for the Spanish Civil War.

TNC said...

More thorough answer here:

ModernityBlog said...

damn good question, I'll wait the answer, should be good :)

The Plump said...

What is Anarchism eh? I once had a job interview when I was asked to define in a few words, 'what is education'? This is nearly on a par with that.


1. The belief that people are able to organise themselves without external coercion.

There are a huge range of perspectives - individualists, collectivists, communists, egoists, pacifists, revolutionaries, religious, atheists etc, etc. Too many for here.

2. The Spanish Civil War happened and so it is interesting and is the only example of a revolution in which one variant of anarchism came to the fore. Personally, I am not that knowledgeable about it. But it certainly showed the abhorrence of Stalinist towards autonomy and liberty. For some it is a myth of revolution and betrayal, for most it is a pivotal historical event worthy of detailed study.

3. Yikes! Anarchists are not utopians so what it would look like is what people would make it look like. Small scale anarchism is all around us in all forms of autonomous self-organisation. In my own field of adult education it is happening the whole time as people organise their own classes after the state has withdrawn. This is probably the type of anarchist action we are looking at today rather than any idea of global revolution.

So Martin - you need to do some reading. Start with Colin Ward's Anarchism, a very short introduction. Ward is an interesting activist and theorist in his own right.

Digital Impressions said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Waterloo Sunset said...

Hi, I got here via Bob.

To try and answer your questions as someone who's still firmly in the anarchist camp.

1. For me, anarchism is first and foremost participatory democracy. On an economic and social level, as well as a political one. It's also a political ideology of working class liberation for me. I'm not a supporter of the 'big tent' view of anarchism.

More specific things that attracted me to anarchism. The creativity and vibrancy of the anarchist movement compared to the old left. The emphasis on action. The prioritisation of freedom as well as equality. Recognition of starting at home, instead of fetishising stuff happening overseas. (A criticism I have of both the "anti-imperalists" and the "anti-totalitarians") The emphasis on antifascism in many quarters. (How I entered the anarchist milieu in the first place. I think its fair to say that the bulk of militant antifascists, certainly in modern Europe, have been anarchists).

Anarchist writers I like- Alexander Berkman, Albert Meltzer, Murray Bookchin, The Friends of Durruti. I'm also inspired by the situationists like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem.

2. As TNC has pointed out, there were definitely things that went wrong with the anarchists in Spain. I think going into government was a real mistake. As was not shooting Stalinists. I think you overstate the clergy issue however. I'm not saying there weren't atrocities. I am however saying that the context was that the Spanish church was actively supporting Franco. Fascists don't cease to become so if they wear a cassock.

But to an extent I agree with you. Spain is important historically and as an example of what to and not to do. But anarchism is first and foremost about the future. The Trots are welcome to the past.

3. Very hard to answer. There is no 'anarchist blueprint' for society. Personally, I'd say it's possible, but it needs a massive decentralisation of power back to a community level. But I'd argue anyone who considers themselves a democrat should support that anyway. Making decisions on a global, or even a national, level involves too many people to be truly democratic.