Friday, June 23, 2006

The roots of modern Anarchism

Before I left for Turkey, there was a request to discuss the history of Anarchism. In particular to compare my anarchism “to that of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which was allegedly responsible for acts of terrorism.” It was an excellent question from Dan Weaver, who is the man behind “Upstream: A Mohawk Valley Blogzine” that I enjoy reading when I get the chance.

To begin with, let me say that I have read up on anarchist history, especially of Spain, but that history is always up for interpretation, especially when we’re talking about radical history. As I can only (and only claim to) represent my version of modern anarchism, I will only present my interpretation of anarchist history.

What I call “anarchism” has its roots in the early days of Socialism; I’m not going to enter a boring treatise quoting various authors like Proudhon or Kropotkin, others have done it better than I and its not necessary. Let us say, however, that these early (first half of the 19th century) anarchists were contemporaneous with Karl Marx and had a similar critique of Capitalism and Class Theory. Where they split from him is in the area of analyzing the State: Marxists believed that the workers needed to seize the State and use it to their advantage, they tended to be more authoritarian in their organization
[1]; Anarchists, on the other hand, saw the State as a tool of oppression that could not be divorced from its origins, they tended to be more egalitarian.

The anti-authoritarian Anarchist thread continued throughout the heyday of the Left in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since it was rarely as well organized as the Authoritarian branch, it is often ignored. Except, that is, in the area of violence. Anarchism has always had parallel pacifist and violent strands of thought within it. Unfortunately, like all philosophies, Anarchism has occasionally been used to “justify” horrific crimes like the murder of innocents.

At the same time, I cannot dismiss all violent anarchists as “terrorists,” since I know many thoughtful, caring individuals who adhere to the violent strand of thought. What I instead advocate is taking each act of violence, and each violent anarchist, as an individual occurrence. We should look at all facets of the action: the intent of the anarchists, the outcome, the target and the methods.

Let me give an example: in 1936 as Franco’s
[2] armies crossed the Straights of Gibraltar in an effort to support an ongoing pro-Fascist coup against the Republic of Spain, the ordinary sailors in the ships (who were forced conscripts and largely anarchist or socialist in their leanings) realized that they were delivering death to their countrymen. That day, across the navy, there was an unplanned general uprising as sailors fashioned what weapons they could to attack their traitorous commanders and the fascist soldiers. While in the end they failed, I believe that their actions upon that day were warranted and defensible, even noble. Here were poorly fed and trained conscripts wielding makeshift tools against the well armed veterans of the Morocco campaign in an attempt to protect their homes, families and comrades from the horror that they correctly foresaw.

Likewise, I do not universally condemn contemporary attacks on property, such as those done by the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front throughout America today. The incredible care that many of these individuals take to avoid hurting human beings
[3] is the best evidence that I have to the fact that they cannot be lumped in with Fundamentalist criminals like those that bomb abortion clinics or hijack planes with no regard for the dignity of human life.

To get back to your question, Dan, how is my Anarchism today different from that held at the turn of the last century? While we still have roots in the class-based organization of the past, today we have moved beyond simple class issues and identify with the oppression of dignity and freedom in all of its forms. In particular the issues, feminism (“anarcha-feminism”), animal-rights/ecology and racial equality have probably come to be equal to class issues in many people’s worldviews. The importance of ecological thinking cannot be underestimated in modern Anarchism, which often seeks to re-green our world. Many anarchists link the oppression of workers to other forms of human oppression (race, gender, religion etc) and to the general abuse and exploitation of our natural environment.

Modern anarchism has also taken a turn of late towards post-modernism. The “Po-Mos”
[4] reject the concept of Progress and the universal efficacy of Science; this is tied to the our wariness over the idea that anything that is new is better that is so popular in America. Instead, po-mo anarchists attempt to utilize other methods for understanding the world, often drawing from the disciplines of philosophy, art analysis (both visual and written) and anthropology to find their answers. I believe that the use of technology as a tool for oppression and exploitation is what has soured many anarchists to the fetishization of Progress and Science as eternal “goods.” It’s hard not to be wary of a philosophy that has killed so many and destroyed so many beautiful things.[5]

The final philosophic thread that has been integrated into modern Anarchism is what I refer to as the “joy of living.” Tied to the ideas of the
Situationists, the Autonomen and the Surrealists, Anarchists have delighted in living as an art form and in creating political spectacle out of daily life. Anarchism has always believed in personal liberty and in everyone’s right to a good life,[6] modern Anarchism has mixed that up with a form of art that involves spontaneity, dark humor and a seemingly unquenchable lust to make meaning out of life.

In all, the threads of anti-authoritarianism, post-modernism, ecological thinking and situationism have combined with traditional class-based anarchism to create a philosophy that is rich, varied and a world apart from the politics of Emma Goldman (though we still love her). I hope I’ve answered your question to your satisfaction.

[1] It is my personal belief that since authoritarianism is a more efficient form of organization, the traditional Marxist domination of the Left has come not from a more successful theoretical base (I think the examples of Stalinism, Maoism, etc, speak to the efficacy of the Authoritarian Left in improving people’s lives), but from their ability to organize assaults upon the generally more poorly organized, egalitarian anarchists. I have seen this with my own eyes at conferences and protests, but is perhaps best understood by reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, where he describes the Stalinists literally attacking the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.
[2] The future Fascist dictator of Spain who would open death camps that killed untold numbers of Spaniards.
[3] Note that no-one has ever been hurt by the ELF or ALF
[4] This is a slightly derogatory term found amongst non-po-mo anthropologists, but as a fan of Post-Modernist theory, I use it myself.
[5] How many native religions and practices have been destroyed by Scientific Progress? How many homes and communities bulldozed? How many Thalidomide babies have been born?
[6] However you interpret that.