Published May 11, 2017 in Warp & Woof
Anarchism: Libertarian, Socialist, or Just Crazy?
What is anarchism? Since the mid-19th century, it has been defined as a political philosophy which is basically anti-statist, with the same Greek root as “anarchy.” It holds that the human spirit is throttled, never aided, by the various mechanisms of the state … including even local authorities acting as agents of the state. Liberty, justice, equality can only be achieved through strictly voluntaryassociations between individuals or groups, never through compulsion.
Through history, from the origins of the movement to the present day, we see some very negative associations for anarchists and anarchism. Hence, many of its followers have avoided the label, calling themselves libertarians, or socialists of various stripes, instead. In fact, these more neutral sounding labels are older than the term anarchism , in English. That does not mean anarchism died out, a momentary blip on the radar screen of political theory without much substance. Indeed, it has been central to the thinking of most left-wing movements ever since it was invented by Pierre Joseph Proudhon, about 1840, with the publication of his book, “What is Property?” The right, as well, has embraced some clearly anarchist thinking in its distrust of government institutions.
The First Anarchist
Proudhon was the first self-proclaimed “anarchist,” but the term had appeared in English as early as the Civil War of the 1640s, where royalists accused roundheads of being anarchists. Proudhon believed that “property is theft.” He wrote that inheritance of property, or any ownership of capital, was an intrinsic evil (he made an exception for personal property, the distinction being much clearer in the 19th century). His philosophy was that all social interaction regarding property should be based on mutually agreement. Although he first called himself a socialist, and approved of Karl Marx’ “Communist Manifesto” (1848), he saw one glaring flaw in Marx – he declared in the Manifesto that the liberation of workers would be accomplished via the state. It was up to workers to stage a coup so they could, in effect, BECOME the state! Marx was a statist. Proudhon said no, this will not work. All members of society need to cooperatein endeavors which are of mutual benefitto all parties. His philosophy became known as “mutualism,” and has maintained a base among many anarchist thinkers ever since.
Proudhon was a slightly older (and wiser?) contemporary of Marx; but, arising in Europe at the time was a diverse group of “anarcho-socialist” thinkers. Being intellectuals, they could not agree among themselves on much of anything. They may have been followers of Marx who disagreed on certain assertions in his writings, or a younger generation who felt no compunction to follow Marx at all.
In Germany, an early contemporary of Marx was Max Stirner, a proponent of “egoism” – the idea that the individual was supreme, owing no allegiance to any higher authority. In fact, all acts of the state to reduce individual freedom were inherently coercive. Does this sound familiar to Americans of a libertarian bent? One can easily extrapolate tax resistance, armed standoffs with federal “revenuers” during Prohibition, or more recently, the Bundy gang of “sovereign citizens.” How about belief in government “death panels,” or the famous Ronald Reagan quote, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help?”
It’s also easy to see why Stirner would have engaged in a bitter feud with the collectivist Karl Marx, which he did. Stirner is the intellectual father of what is now known as “individualist anarchism.” Offshoots of egoism included the (mainly French) groups known as “illegalists” … essentially, criminal gangs justifying their acts with anarchist logic. Does anybody remember Patty Hearst, and the Symbionese Liberation Army?
In the 1870s and 1880s, as anarchism grew, the philosophy became darker, giving rise to a group of insurrectionists who believed in something another German, Johann Most, called “propaganda of the deed.” A short description of this doctrine would be: terrorism!The concept was, basically, to get people’s attention to the struggle by killing them. Acts of terror (including bombings and assassinations) were considered “propaganda” … they spread the word of the revolution through the horror of “the deed.” One can only imagine the degree of alienation necessary to formulate such a monstrous political theory. Johann Most apparently felt just such alienation. He also conveniently had an explosives business, so he could give a detailed description, in his work, of how to make a bomb to carry out this “propaganda of the deed.” He was, literally, the original “bomb thrower.”
Anarchism was attracting Russian intellectuals as well. Mikhail Bakunin, who had been a follower of Marx, but quickly lost ties with others in the International Workingmen’s Association (First International), when forced to flee his home country. Living in exile because of writings condemning Russian hegemony over post-partition Poland, Bakunin dropped out of sight. What Bakunin did, instead, was travel the world, spreading his own collectivist and anti-imperialist ideas far and wide – to Spain, Italy, Latin America, even the U.S. – a veritable “Johnny Appleseed” of anarchism. By the end of his life (1876), there were anarchist cells everywhere. Many of Marx’s early followers from the First International were deserting their German mentor for what might be called the “Anarchist International” (except that the term was officially adopted in 1968 by another group, “International of Anarchist Federations”). Its first congress was held in Switzerland in 1872.
Peter Kropotkin, another Russian, who flourished just prior to the Bolshevik Revolution (November,1917), was a member of the aristocracy, and had an exemplary early career as a geographer in Siberia. He became radicalized, like Bakunin, and affiliated himself with the First International in the early 1870s, just as it was starting to collapse from the growing anarchist influences. He, too, declared himself an anarchist, and followed some of the more radical elements of the philosophy taking shape in the 1880s, including “propaganda of the deed.”
Kropotkin finally returned to Russia, after 40 years of exile for his subversive activities, just in time for the February Revolution of 1917. He was now considered a hero to the left-wing elements among his countrymen – but, when the Bolshevik Revolution followed only eight months later, Kropotkin was not hesitant to decry the new statist regime of Lenin and Trotsky. He accused it of “burying the revolution,” writing that the ultimate end of the experiment would be the return of capitalism. This is exactly what he had spent the last 40 years fighting. He died of pneumonia in 1921, a disheartened, and still angry, old man.
For the most part, however, the Bolsheviks either intimidated, or co-opted, the Russian anarchists into following their version of “The Revolution,” and the Communist International carried that strategy around the world. Anarchism soon began to fade in the collective memories of most in the West, especially because of the violent actions of some of its more extreme believers.
Emma Goldman, American Anarchist
Anarchism entered the United States, first via individualist anarchists like Benjamin Tucker, who published a newspaper called “Liberty” (1881), advocating something like libertarianism, but claiming its editor’s adherence to the philosophy of Proudhon. Although Bakunin had visited the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, in the 1870s, Tucker’s newspaper was the first home grown American exponent of the creed. And, in 1885, a certain teenage Russian immigrant named Emma Goldman, a victim of rape in her father’s corset shop, who had earlier become enthralled with the radical philosophy of nihilism, rejecting all religious and moral values, or any meaning to life. She had found the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II fascinating.
She wished to escape her family, especially her disapproving father who called her a “loose woman,” at age 15. He had arranged a marriage for Emma, to somebody she despised. She refused. Emma arrived in Rochester, New York to live with her sister. It was there that she became interested in anarchist literature, reading with interest of the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago. Unfortunately, Rochester was no escape from her parents, who followed her there, after a year.
She fled from them, again, to New York City, and immediately met Johann Most. Despite an early affinity for his “propaganda of the deed,” she argued with him, spurning his mentorship. But, her New York lover, Alexander Berkman, was a true believer in Most’s doctrine — including “attentat,” an act of violence intended to stir the masses to revolt. Berkman attempted to carry out an elaborate plan to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the manager of the Homestead Steel Works, near Pittsburgh, in 1892. He failed, and was sentenced to 22 years in prison for attempted murder. Goldman was implicated in the plot, but never brought to trial. She did do time for “inciting to riot,” following 1893 food riots. Thanks to an interview by Nellie Bly of the New York World, she became an early feminist hero. Her growing public support didn’t keep her from being sentenced, however. She had become a bona fide celebrity … making her a “dangerous person,” according to the prosecutor.
In 1901, an anarchist follower of Most did succeed in an assassination plot. President William McKinley was shot and killed by Leon Czolgosz. During the assassin’s lengthy interrogation after his arrest, he said he had been inspired by Emma Goldman … whom he had been stalking for some time, although apparently never befriended. Goldman was arrested and detained, based on his story, but released, since no further evidence could be found of her involvement. Czolgosz was executed, and McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, vowed to crack down, not only on all anarchists, but their sympathizers as well.
Goldman temporarily withdrew from public life, vilified not only by the authorities, but by other anarchists, as well, for refusing to condemn Czolgosz’ action. She later re-emerged as a vocal supporter of Margaret Sanger and the early women’s health movement (aka, birth control), and she enthusiastically served more jail time for violating the Comstock Act that made it illegal to distribute information about contraception. Yet, she opposed the suffragists, since she had always felt that voting was an act of complicity with the state, hence with capitalism.
Then, in 1917, when conscription was introduced, she and Berkman were imprisoned again, under the new Espionage Act, for “inducing persons not to register.” After completion of their two-year sentences, they were both deported to Russia – where Goldman had an opportunity to become disenchanted with the Bolshevik Revolution. As a life-long free speech advocate, she couldn’t countenance what had emerged as the dystopian workers’ state of the Soviet Union.
Near the end of her life (1940), living in London, she opposed going to war, hating equally the European fascists and Stalin, and writing that the Western democracies were really “fascists in disguise.” She had always abhorred capitalism as incompatible with human liberty, throughout her life.
Today, in the United States, we have obvious progeny of the anarchist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. American libertarians, inspired by Ayn Rand, have adopted the wholesale rejection of many trappings of the state – taxation, regulation, and other forms of government control. They are also suspicious of foreign entanglements. Like Max Stirner, they seem to be driven by egoism, or selfishness. They tend to believe only in the power of the marketplace to determine social priorities.
On the left, we have seen actual riots motivated by anarchist principles, including the anti-globalists protesting the WTO meeting in Seattle, 1999 – much like the 1893 food riots that sent Emma Goldman to prison. With the Internet enabling much faster communication among followers, the Seattle protests were managed by anonymous, leaderless “black blocs,” cells that couldn’t be traced.
In 2011, anarchist organizing prowess re-appeared for the Zuccotti Park Occupy Wall Street squatting action. It was also decentralized, spawning simultaneous occupations in many cities, across the globe. OccupyWallStreet.netis still an active web site, available everywhere, with no shortage of anarchist polemic, and requisite calls to action.
A left-libertarianenvironmentalist movement has also emerged, harkening back to Proudhon’s original mutualism – they believe the commons should not be anybody’s property, but should be collectively owned for the mutual benefit of stakeholders.
Most left-of-center political parties, worldwide, acknowledge the core principles of the first anarchists: liberation of workers from the yoke of capitalism, either through conventional politics or extraordinary means; freedom from rules imposed by state machinery caring only for maintaining power; equitable distribution of resources (“from each according to ability, to each according to need”).
Anything new? In this country, and Europe as well, there are ethnic/racial tensions which are not directly addressed by anarchism, both from the left (Black Lives Matter) and the right (white nationalism).
Deletions? Hopefully, established political parties in democracies have all disowned illegalism, and Most’s “propaganda of the deed” – those were the crazy anarchists. But, what of non-democratic states, the dictatorships and kleptocracies we are fortunate not to live in? Can’t we imagine radical … even violent … solutions in some of them? The Arab Spring?
Overall, it seems little has changed over the last 200 years when it comes to political theory on the left side of the spectrum. And, with libertarians on the right, the semi-circle of the 1789 Assemblee Constituante sometimes looks like a nearly complete circle … with diminishing distance between extreme left and extreme right!