8 January 2003
Anarchism is a political philosophy that is shrouded in misconception. This is largely due to the fact that anarchism is a truly diverse way of thinking, one which cannot be characterized by simple slogans or party lines. In fact, if you ask 10 anarchists for their description of anarchism, you are likely to get 10 different answers. Anarchism is more than just a political philosophy; it is a way of life that encompasses political, pragmatic and personal aspects.
The basic tenet of anarchism is that hierarchical authority — be it state, church, patriarchy or economic elite — is not only unnecessary, but is inherently detrimental to the maximization of human potential. Anarchists generally believe that human beings are capable of managing their own affairs on the basis of creativity, cooperation, and mutual respect. It is believed that power is inherently corrupting, and that authorities are inevitably more concerned with self-perpetuation and increasing their own power than they are with doing what is best for their constituents. Anarchists generally maintain that ethics are a personal matter, and should be based upon concern for others and the wellbeing of society, rather than upon laws imposed by a legal or religious authority (including revered laws such as the U.S. Constitution). Most anarchist philosophies hold that individuals are responsibile for their own behavior. Paternalistic authorities foster a dehumanized mindset in which people expect elites to make decisions for them and meet their needs, rather than thinking and acting for themselves. When an authority arrogates to itself the right to overrule the most fundamental personal moral decisions, such as what is worth killing or dying for (as in military conscription or abortion), human freedom is immeasurably diminished.
Anarchists acknowledge the connection between various forms of oppression — including sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, and national chauvinism — and recognize the futility of focusing opposition on one form of injustice while others continue to exist. Anarchists believe that the means one uses to transform the world must be in accord with the ends that one hopes to achieve. While anarchists disagree about strategies and tactics, including the need for formal organizations and the use of violent action to overthrow existing violent institutions, most agree that the focus must not be on merely destroying the current order, but on fashioning new, more humane and more rational alternatives to take its place.
Anarchist in History Anarchists have played a part in revolutionary movements throughout history. The French Revolution begun in 1789 had a strong proto-anarchist element. Anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin, and Errico Malatesta played an essential part in the development of revolutionary anarchist theory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anarchists played a substantial role in the revolutionary movements in Russia in 1905 and 1917, but were suppressed, often ruthlessly, once the Bolsheviks had consolidated power. The Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 set the stage for the most widely known large-scale manifestation of anarchist practice, in which anarcho-syndicalist organizations (the FAI and CNT) successfully created workable, non-hierarchical social and economic alternatives. In the United States, as well as in Mexico and Latin America, there was an anarcho-syndicalist influence within the trade union movement (for example the Industrial Workers of the World). Prominent anarchists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman participated in a variety of radical causes throughout the early 1900s. There was a strong anarchist current in many of the social change and alternative lifestyle movements of the 1960s (including parts of the feminist movement, the gay liberation movement and the anti-war and free speech movements), although in many cases these were overshadowed, if not frankly repressed, by Marxist/Leninist/Maoist currents.
What Anarchism is Not In an effort to clarify what anarchism is, it is useful to examine what anarchism is not:
Communism: While many anarchists value communalism and collectivism, anarchists reject the totalitarianism of the existing and recently fallen communist, or more accurately Marxist-Leninist, states. The rift between anarchists and Marxists developed as early as the 1870s as anarchists perceived that the Marxists were perpetuating authoritarianism under a different name. Marxist-Leninists groups have traditionally emphasized the need for a vanguard party and the dictatorship of the proletariat, ideas which are fundamentally opposed to the anarchist focus on anti-authoritarianism and maximum individual freedom. Although orthodox Marxism predicts that the state will "wither away" with time, we have repeatedly seen in communist regimes a consolidation of state power and its attendant repression and insistence on conformity.
Libertarianism: Libertarians are often confused with anarchists and do, in fact, overlap in many respects. Both share an emphasis on individual freedom and the desire to do away with the state. Many libertarians assign primary importance to the individual and emphasize the principle of enlightened self-interest. Many anarchists tend to focus more on mutual aid and efforts to improve the circumstances of all members of the community. Libertarianism is most often characterized by its economic viewpoint, which places maximum value on unimpeded free market capitalism (some proponents call themselves "anarcho-capitalists"), condones the use of force in the defense of private property, opposes any governmental interference that impedes efforts to maximize personal economic gain, and discounts values that can not be measured in economic (typically monetary) terms. While libertarians are anti-state, they often are not opposed to domination and hierarchy in all its forms (there is often a strain of "survival of the fittest" or "[economic] might makes right" in the libertarian philosophy), and do not seek to radically alter societal power relations, especially those based on economic power. Anarchists tend to have a more socialist perspective, and favor doing away with any system in which the wealthy can achieve disproportionate benefit while the less fortunate suffer undue hardship. While anarchists value individual initiative, intelligence, and creativity, it is recognized that those who possess such talents to a lesser degree should still be treated with respect and justice. Objectivists are an extremist type of libertarian. The Libertarian Party is relatively moderate, and tends to focus on issues like electoral reform, abolishing drug laws, and reducing governmental regulation. Many libertarians are "minarchists" who believe that some form of government is necessary but that it should be as minimal and unobtrusive as possible. The question of what type of economic system would exist in an anarchist society is an open one. Some anarchists believe that all forms of capital and the market economy must be abolished, others favor a system that promotes worker ownership and full participatory democracy within a market economy, and still others believe that a variety of economic systems can co-exist as long as they do not try to impose their systems and values on each other.
"Liberalism": The prevailing political notions in this country equate anarchism with leftism, and leftism with liberalism, but there are real differences, both quantitative and qualitative. The idea of "the left" is problematic in the 1990s, since much of modern politics tends to fall outside the traditional left (liberal)/right (conservative) spectrum. Although most anarchists do support "progressive" causes, anarchism does not really have a place within the traditional political spectrum. Some theorists have proposed a matrix that looks at degree of economic authoritarianism and degree of social authoritarianism as two separate axis; often those who favor economic liberty oppose social liberty and vice versa. Much of modern progressive politics is based on "identity politics," the idea that one’s primary concerns and alliances should be made on the basis of race, gender and/or sexual orientation. Although many anarchists are heavily invested in identity politics, a more comprehensive anarchist philosophy looks forward to a time when people will not need to focus so much on such categorizations. While liberals tend to advocate efforts to reform the existing system (through such means as voting, lobbying, and organized demonstrating), anarchists have a more radical view, and wish to replace corrupt institutions entirely, and refashion a more humane society by means of direct action, without reliance on any form of statist intervention. While anarchists generally recognize the validity of evolutionary as well as revolutionary change, they acknowledge that in order to achieve a true reordering of society it is necessary to eradicate hierarchical dominance relations wherever they exist; this has not historically been a priority of liberals. Anarchists recognize that the structures of power themsleves (be they capitalist or communist, "democratic" or totalitarian) are the root of the problem, and as such, cannot be the basis for a solution. Although some anarchists engage in voting and organized protest in the belief that even small localized improvements are worthwhile, they recognize that such activities are merely interim steps, which one must go beyond in order to achieve real and lasting change.
Nihilism: In contrast to the "anti-everything" credo of nihilism, anarchists do not promote random violence, destruction, and "every man for himself" lawlessness (although there are always a few with this philosophy who call themselves "anarchists"). The common perception that anarchy is equivalent to chaos is an unfortunate misconception arising from the widespread belief, instilled by those in power, that authority is necessary to maintain order. Anarchists believe that an efficient, organized, and just society can be achieved on a non-hierarchical, decentralized, and participatory basis.
An Introduction to Anarchism _Liz A. Highleyman
[This essay was written in 1988 by Liz and the (now defunct) Black Rose anarchist group in Boston, MA]
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