JR'S Free Thought Pages
The Only Philosophy of Real Freedom
by Johnny Reb
Every type of ecclesiastical and political power presupposes some particular form of human slavery, for the maintenance of which it is called into being – Rudolf Rocker
The separation of church and state is considered a necessary criterion for the establishment of our putative democracies and is deemed sacrosanct. But as most of us ought to know, by the stark reality of contemporary politics in the United States and Canada, the important wall between church and state is a farce. The anarchist solves this problem by abolishing both.
Due primarily to deliberate distortions and prevarications by conservatives and particularly those in positions of political power and their intellectual lackeys, anarchism remains widely misunderstood.
With all-too-common misconceptions and misinformation about violence and chaos, anarchism has little to do with either. It is sometimes perceived as representing, as Noam Chomsky has said, the “libertarian wing of the socialist movement,” ostensibly centered on consensus models of decision-making and what is sometimes referred to as “direct democracy.” The primary concern of anarchists is authoritarianism and it's hierarchical and coercive nature, most commonly represented by organized religion and the state.
To have “no gods or masters” while respecting the virtues of diversity, anarchists maintain that everyone should be treated with respect, allowed autonomy, and accorded a voice in all decisions that affect them. These radical notions too often have been chastised, ridiculed, and falsely represented. Nonetheless, anarchism today is global, adopted by collectives, communities, and individuals around the world.
The first anti-authoritarian to explicitly refer to himself as an "anarchist" was a French radical named Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865). Proudhon rose to prominence in large part due to his polemic “What is Property?” in which he contended that “Property is theft!” Proudhon’s call for a stateless society became a hallmark of anarchist thought, and his opposition to private property placed classical anarchism firmly within the socialist movement, in opposition to capitalism and private ownership of the means of production.
Proudhon’s work was in the starting point of a general critique of authoritarian relations in anarchism’s “classical” phase centered around critiques of capitalism, the church, and the state. Later anarchist writers such as Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, and Errico Malatesta began to develop a theory of anti-statist socialism, and anarchists around the world began creating a theory and practice that was diverse yet centered around some basic points of agreement: (1) opposition to hierarchy, (2) decentralization, (3) a commitment to freedom and autonomy, and (4) an opposition to vanguard organizations as it was expressed in authoritarian socialist traditions such as Stalinism.
Some have argued that these general principles are nearly identical to left-wing anti-Bolshevist Marxism. For example see Noam Chomsky's book Chomsky on Anarchism. There are indeed many similarities between classical anarchism and the Marxism of the council communists, Italian autonomists, and various Marxist theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Mattick, and Antonio Gramsci. Classical anarchism, then, is sometimes referred to as “libertarian socialism” to draw attention to the similarities in praxis between anti-authoritarian socialists, despite their personal political identification as either “anarchist” or “Marxist.”
For many, this classical anarchism conjures images of groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World (i.e. the IWW or “Wobblies”), a largely anarcho-syndicalist labour union that reached its zenith in the early 1900s and that still organizes workers today. To others, famous events or notable historical figures such as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Haymarket Martyrs, or Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman come to represent that spirit. Perhaps the most-cited and obvious example of classical anarchism in action, however, was during the Spanish Civil War. During this time period, “approximately a million people were members of the Anarchosyndicalist CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo, or National Confederation of Labor) – an immense following if one bears in mind that at the time the Spanish population numbered only twenty-four million.
Anarchists of this time period also had a strong presence in the Russian Revolution, particularly the Makhnovists in the Ukraine. However, the Spanish Civil War had a revolutionary contingent that was primarily anarchist in character, and that context provides a glimpse of what classical anarchism in fact looked like in action. Even today when the question is raised about whether anarchism can actually “work,” the Spanish experience is still cited as a positive example – even though the revolution there was ultimately doomed by the combined treacheries of Stalinists, fascists, and capitalists alike as described in George Orwell’s compelling account in Homage to Catalonia.
After the Spanish Civil War, anarchism seemed (at least to some observers) to lie mostly dormant, though certainly not asleep, until the student/worker movements of the 1960s and 1970s. One particularly inspiring event for anarchists of that time period was the uprising in Paris in May of 1968. This partially Situationist-inspired rebellion saw students and workers united in strikes, marches, and clashes with police in the streets. The Sorbonne was occupied as students declared it the “People’s University.” Likewise, workers began demanding higher wages and occupying some of the factories. Ultimately, the events in France did not lead to as substantial a political change as the people demanded, however, this marked a cultural shift in France which is still often cited as a watershed moment. These events, and especially the ideas of the Situationist International, would have a big impact on anarchism during this time period.
During the 1980s and early 1990s interest in anarchism seemed to be waning. But anarchism began seeing a resurgence after the Battle of Seattle when a coalition of anarchists, workers’ unions, feminists, anti-racists, environmentalists, animal rights activists, etc., successfully stopped the World Trade Organization’s ministerial conference in late 1999.
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The great anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin's God and the State is a must read classic.
You can actually read this short volume of about 100 pages, written in 1871, online:
Bakunin had utter contempt for all authoritarian hierarchical systems both religious and secular. He considered them oppressive, coercive and antithetical to democracy and freedom. Most of Bakunin's writings can be found online.
In his last work in 1873 Statism and Anarchy, Bakunin writes:
"As revolutionary anarchists we advocate universal education, liberation, and the broad development of social life, and therefore we are enemies of the state and of any kind of state administration…[W]e have neither the intention nor the least desire to impose upon our own or any other nation any ideal of social organization that we have found in books or invented; but in the belief that the masses bear all the elements of their future pattern of organization in their more or less historically developed instincts, in their own vital demands, and in their own conscious or unconscious aspirations, we seek this ideal in the people themselves. Since any state power, any government by its nature and position stands outside and above the people, and must necessarily try to subordinate them to alien regulations and purposes, we declare ourselves the enemies of all governmental or state power, the enemies of state organization altogether.
We believe that the people will be happy and free only when they build their own life by organizing themselves from below upward, by means of autonomous and totally free associations, subject to no official tutelage but exposed to the influence of diverse individuals and parties enjoying mutual freedom. "
A recent biography of Bakunin was published in 2009 by SFU history professor Mark Leier called Bakunin: The Creative Passion. In addition to the must read God and the State, an excellent collection of Bakunin's writings during his most productive period from 1869-71 is The Basic Bakunin, published by Prometheus Books, translated and edited by Robert M. Cutler. Like most iconoclasts, radicals and revolutionaries such as Victor Serge and Leon Trotsky ,Bakunin was on the run moving from one country to another. Consequently his writing output was uneven. I read God and the State on a recommendation from an anarchist math professor at UBC. The book cracked my skull open like no other book and I've been an avid reader of anarchist philosophy ever since. Since retirement I've read voraciously. A contemporary anarchist thinker well worth pursuing is David Graeber.