Contemporary anarchism

Anarchism is a process whereby authority and domination is being replaced with non-hierarchical, horizontal structures, with voluntary associations between human beings. It is a form of social organisation with a set of key principles, such as self-organisation, voluntary association, freedom, autonomy, solidarity, direct democracy, egalitarianism and mutual aid. Based on these principles and values, anarchism rejects both a capitalist economy and a nation state that is governed by means of a representative democracy. It is a utopian project that aspires to combine the best parts of liberalism with the best parts of communism. At its heart is a mix of the liberal emphasis on individual freedom and the communist emphasis on an equal society. Let’s unpack this a bit. The etymology of the term traces back to the Greek word “anarkhia”, which means “without rulers” or “without authority”. It stands for the absence of domination, hierarchy and power over others.

Whenever public protests ignite into violent behaviour, the mainstream media are often quick to refer to “anarchy” and to “anarchists”. Those who are referred to as anarchists are protesters who burn tyres or engage in battles with the police. In this narrative, anarchists are lawless hooligans and anarchy is about chaos and pointless violence. The political philosophy of anarchisms emerged in the mid-19th century – as part of the thought of Enlightenment. Key anarchist thinkers include Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, William Godwin, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, Emma Goldman, and Max Stirner. Proudhon is credited as the first self-proclaimed anarchist and is often seen as the founder of classic anarchist thinking. In particular, he developed the concept of spontaneous order in society, where organisations can emerge without central or top-down coordination.

The most common definitions of anarchism stress two points; first, anarchists are opposed to any form of coercive authority; following from this, anarchists are opposed to state power and seek to destroy it. But even this basic definition ignores the important distinction between anarchists who emphasize collective action rather than individualism, or who avoid any strategies focused on the state (even its destruction. The last stand of traditional anarchism, which reached its high point in Spain during the 1930s, suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Franco’s fascists and the criminal policies of the Stalinized Communist Party. A once vibrant international anarchist movement was in ruins by the end of the Second World War. In the United States, political repression and Red Squad terror decimated the anarchist ranks more than a decade earlier. Small, isolated groups of anarchists survived, but never again reached the influence once attained during the Spanish Civil War.

After World War II, anarchist groups and federations reemerged in almost all countries where they had formerly flourished—the notable exceptions being Spain and the Soviet Union—but these organizations wielded little influence compared to that of the broader movement inspired by earlier ideas. This development is not surprising, since anarchists never stressed the need for organizational continuity, and the cluster of social and moral ideas that are identifiable as anarchism always spread beyond any clearly definable movement.

Anarchist ideas emerged in a wider frame of reference beginning with the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, which aimed to resist injustice through the tactic of civil disobedience. In the 1960s and ’70s a new radicalism took root among students and the left in general in the United States, Europe, and Japan, embracing a general criticism of “elitist” power structures and the materialist values of modern industrial societies—both capitalist and communist. For these radicals, who rejected the traditional parties of the left as strongly as they did the existing political structure, the appeal of anarchism was strong. The general anarchist outlook—with its emphasis on spontaneity, theoretical flexibility, simplicity of life, and the importance of love and anger as complementary and necessary components in both social and individual action—attracted those who opposed impersonal political institutions and the calculations of older parties. The anarchist rejection of the state, and the insistence on decentralism and local autonomy, found strong echoes among those who advocated participatory democracy. The anarchist insistence on direct action was reflected in calls for extra parliamentary action and violent confrontation by some student groups in France, the United States, and Japan. Anarchists also took up issues related to feminism and developed a rich body of work, known as anarcha-feminism, that applied anarchist principles to the analysis of women’s oppression, arguing that the state is inherently patriarchal and that women’s experience as nurturers and caregivers reflects the anarchist ideals of mutuality and the rejection of hierarchy and authority.

The most prevalent current in anarchist thinking during the last two decades of the 20th century (at least in the United States) was an eclectic, countercultural mixture of theories reflecting a wide range of artistic, literary, political, and philosophical influences, including Dada, Surrealism, and Situationism; the writers of the Beat movement; the Frankfurt School of Marxist-oriented social and political philosophers—especially Herbert Marcuse—and post-structuralist and postmodern philosophy and literary theory, in particular the work of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault.

Contemporary anarchism has some important differences, but also a great deal of continuity, with historical anarchism. Where it focuses on building an alternative in the “interstices” of capitalism, it accommodates to, rather than challenges, capitalism; and where it fetishizes street tactics, it generates more press than tangible success in either building the struggle or in challenging the state.But struggle teaches, and those anarchists most engaged in struggle and most concerned with finding the most effective means of winning a better world are looking for alternative ideas to make sense of the crises around us. Marxists and these anarchists should stand shoulder-to-shoulder in every aspect of struggle, whether fighting evictions, the far right, or budget cuts. And serious revolutionaries must consider what tactics will strengthen the movement and its chances of victory. Foolish acts of vandalism by unaccountable individuals only serve to disrupt and weaken the movement, and the best anarchists recognize this.