JR'S Free Thought Pages
Theory and Practice
What about Socialism and Anarchism?
by Johnny Reb
First, one must clarify what is meant by "theory." Within the realm of scientific inquiry, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of facts observable in the natural world. Scientific theories are explanations that are based on lines of evidence, enable valid predictions, and have been tested repeatedly in a variety of ways. In contrast, there is also a widely held mangled and counterfeit "definition" of theory suggesting a "conjecture", "guess” or “hunch.” These conflicting conceptions are frequently the cause of unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding of the Theory of Evolution, the cornerstone of modern biology. Like other generally accepted theories by scientists and the enlightened public such as universal gravitation, evolution is both fact and theory.1
I do not think it is possible to make neutral culture free observations sub specie aeternitatis in either the material or social domains. Objectivity is generally tainted in some way by our philosophical world view and cultural biases. But some observations are more readily verifiable than others, and so some theoretical claims are more naturally agreeable than others. They appear "naturally" true. When it comes to matters of human interaction and society, there is a superfluity of what amount to claims to knowledge, all of which will involve conjectural assumptions. While not all theories are verifiable, some, especially in the material realm, come closer to satisfying the principles of verification than others. It is not a case, as some epistemological relativists and postmodernist philosophers have suggested, that "anything goes". For example, truth cannot be reduced to "what's true for me may not be true for you", thus reducing knowledge to strictly a matter of belief. Even though our access to reality may be partial, provisional and constructed, some accounts can still be shown to be better than others. We are familiar with this principle in the physical sciences, where theories are regularly updated or even replaced wholesale. This underscores the relevance of theories, as well as their partial and conditional character.
A common objection to certain theories of human nature, society and politics is that "they are all well and fine in theory but will not work in practice." For example, this approach at rebuttal is a standard one for those who embrace a prevailing ideology such as capitalism and who desire to refute any other competitor, such as socialism or anarchism2. I will address the issue of the alleged theory/practice gap of socialism and anarchism later in this paper.
The kind of objection to "certain theories" alluded to in the above paragraph is really nothing more than specious sophistry. It's a violation of a well-known rule of reasoning whereby one accepts a premise but denies a conclusion that must follow from it. After all, if a proposition is true (or works) and is accepted in theory, it ought to be true (and work) in practice. Why? Because if something doesn't work in practice, there must be something wrong with the theory. So what is wrong in practice must be wrong in theory as well. So the only way out of this logical trap is to find flaws in the theory.
The claim that some things are fine in theory but do not work in practice, has a long and varied history. In 1793 Immanuel Kant attempted to defend his theory of absolutist ethics against the charge that there are gaps between his theory and practice.
“[A] general rule,” said Kant, “must be supplemented by an act of judgment whereby the practitioner distinguishes instances where the rule applies from those where it does not.” This means that those who lack judgment might be rendered powerless in actual practice, even though they understand the theory. “There are doctors and lawyers,” Kant explains, “who did well during their schooling but who do not know how to act when asked to give advice.”
Ironically, this point by the eminent philosopher is especially important in assessing the kind of absolutist ethical theory (deontological as opposed to consequential) that Kant himself defends. Like Divine Command Ethics, Kant held that moral rules are categorical and have no exceptions. So on his way of thinking, we may never lie, we may never break a promise, we may never kill, and so on. This is an observable example of an ethics that seems not to work in practice, for sensible people recognize that all moral rules must be considered in context. In dilemmas where two moral rules conflict, or in extreme circumstances, even very vital and generally cross-culturally accepted rules may have to be broken. Would you lie to save a life, for example?
This is not the place to probe into ethical theory since there are plenty of excellent books written by competent moral philosophers to which one can appeal. I have merely chosen the example from ethics to help explain the purported theory-practice divide.3
Is Marxism Irrelevant?
Western capitalist countries today must confront two ongoing biases that have been relentlessly propagated by both conservative and liberal intellectuals as well as the corporate controlled mass media at large. As Terry Eagleton stated in his excellent book Why Marx was Right (2012) is that we need to liberate ourselves from the intellectual shackles of a situation in which "a bunch of power-crazed, avaricious bullies dictate through their privately owned media outlets what the public should believe - which is to say, their own self-interested opinions and the system they support. We will know that socialism has established itself when we are able to look back with utter incredulity on the idea that a handful of commercial thugs were given free rein to corrupt the minds of the public with Neanderthal political views convenient for their own bank balances but for little else." (p. 28)
The first of the two ongoing corporate controlled media biases is the idea that the key features of successive societies and human history have been a result of a static unchanging human nature. Throughout history it has been a prejudice that pervades academic writing, mainstream journalism and popular culture alike. It has been invoked by conservative elites to maintain the status quo of oligarchy and suppress any attempt to expand liberty and justice, particularly that of the oppressed working classes. Human beings, we are told, have always been greedy, competitive and aggressive, and that explains the need for authoritarian systems of governance, the horrors of war, exploitation, slavery, racism and the oppression of women. In particular, the predominantly Western Christian notion that flows from the mythology of "original sin" and "the fall" in the Bible has been pressed into service to explain and justify inequality, racism, paternalism, the genocide of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the slaughter on the two fronts of the First World War, the Holocaust in the Second and the countless colonial and imperialistic wars before and since. Dominance and a Thomas Hobbes nightmare of perpetual conflict and war, including the persistent religious variety, are inevitable and any effort to advocate cooperative arrangements such as socialism and anarchism are utopian.
I would argue that human nature as we know it today is primarily an ideological product of history and those who have been our educators and rulers, not its cause. Our history has involved the moulding of different human natures, each displacing the one that went before through great economic, political and philosophical debates. It's no accident that our current views of human nature have an uncanny similarity with the world view of the dominant class to which the philosophers belong. Yet these views are historically limited to the rise of capitalism and the nation state and does not take into account indigenous and other pre-capitalist cultures that were based not on self-interest and greed, but caring and mutual aid.
The current state of our atomized self-indulgent culture of rabid narcissism, individualism and self-interest ends up self-fulfilling as we resort to inculcating our children with depraved moral "values" such as self-promotion, competitiveness and acquisitiveness in order that they may survive in the prevailing gospel of unbridled global capitalism. It's an undeniable fact that the vast majority of ordinary people do not want war, but throughout history it has been they who have fought, died and been maimed in them in the service of power, greed and profit by conservative elites, from popes and high priests, to feudal landlords and warlords, to monarchs, fascist dictators and robber barons and on to our current crop of big business and corporate controlled aristocrats and its lackey parliamentarians. The worlds 500 or so billionaires don't need titles like King Gates, Grand Duke Buffett or Lord (John) Paulson in the United States or Baron Thomson, Count Weston or Prince Pattison in Canada. Corporatism masquerades as "democracy" but is no less a plutocracy than the conservative rulers of the past.
The second prejudice, much promulgated in the last two or three decades, is that although human society may have changed in the past, it will do so no more because capitalism is the new global paradigm, an historical teleological apotheosis for which now there is no alternative (TINA). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many prematurely and wrongly declared that Karl Marx's theories have been refuted, even falsified. It's not at all ironic that before 1990 the two great cold war propaganda systems in the world invoked the word "socialism" for completely opposite motives. The Soviet Union used the label "socialism" to indoctrinate its citizens into believing that their country, created in theory by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky - but transmogrified into a totalitarian proto-fascist Orwellian nightmare by Stalin - had in some meaningful way compatibility with real socialism. The United States also used the label "socialism" as a propaganda ploy to describe what went on in the Soviet Union. But in the case of the United States it was a devious ploy to demonize socialism by associating it with what had transpired in the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Both claims are pure fantasy; but propaganda, if repeated often, is, I hesitate to say, distressingly effective. In the United States it proved to be a powerful ideological weapon in enforcing obedience and conformity to the state capitalist system as some sort of natural law, dissuading any American from ever considering socialism or anarchism as viable alternatives.4
Incidentally, what is rarely mentioned by most mainstream historians were the gargantuan military and financial efforts by capitalist countries in the West such as Britain, France and the United States to sabotage the Russian Revolution by inciting a lengthy civil war, siding with the despotic and brutal deposed Romanoff monarchy. If your country is under invasion from an array of hostile capitalist powers, as Russia was in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, a totalitarian state, such as Stalinism, will seem all the more inevitable. Mexico and Cuba suffered similar military intrusions and economic pressures from capitalist countries, primarily the United States, while trying to frame a people's democracy. Britain during the Second World War was far from an autocracy; but it was by no means a free country, and one would not have expected it to be under the conditions it was experiencing.
During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) Western capitalist countries including Britain, France and the United States stood idly by as Hitler and Mussolini supported the reactionary Franco fascists against the new Spanish Democratic Republic. The Republic was defeated and the opportunity chance to avert the Second World War by stopping fascism in Spain was lost. The conservative elites in the capitalist countries feared the working class movements in the Spanish Republic more than they did fascist dictatorship and global war.
Here is Terry Eagleton from his recent book Why Marx was Right:
...There is a paradoxical sense in which Stalinism, rather than discrediting Marx’s work, bears witness to its validity. If you want a compelling account of how Stalinism comes about, you have to go to Marxism. Mere moral denunciations of the beast are simply not good enough. We need to know in what material conditions it arises, how it functions and how it might fail, and this knowledge has been best provided by certain mainstream currents of Marxism. Such Marxists, many of them followers of Leon Trotsky or of one or another ‘‘libertarian’’ brand of socialism, differ from Western liberals in one vital respect: their criticisms of the so-called communist societies have been far more deep-seated. They have not contented themselves with wistful pleas for more democracy or civil rights. Instead, they have called for the overthrow of the entire repressive system, and called for this precisely as socialists. Moreover, they have been issuing such calls almost since the day that Stalin took power. At the same time, they have warned that if the communist system were to collapse, it might well be into the arms of a predatory capitalism waiting hungrily to pick among the ruins. Leon Trotsky foresaw precisely such an end to the Soviet Union, and was proved right some twenty years ago. (p. 21-22)
It's important to note that capitalism as a way of organizing the entire production of a country is only three or four centuries old. As a way of organizing the entire production of the world, it is at most 150 years old. Industrial state capitalism, with its mass urbanization, widespread literacy and universal dependence on markets, has only taken off in vast sectors of the globe in the past 50 years. Yet humans of one sort or another have been on the earth for over a million years, and modern humans for over 100,000 years. It would be remarkable indeed if a way of running things that has existed for less than 0.5 percent of our species’ existence were to endure for the rest of it - unless that existence is going to be very short indeed, as many are now predicting.
As Ronald Wright in A Short History of Progress has argued, the recent past of our species had not been some smooth upward path of progress. It has been marked by repeated convulsions, horrific wars, bloody civil conflicts, violent revolutions and counter-revolutions. Times when it seemed that the lot of the mass of humanity was bound to improve have almost invariably given way to decades or even centuries of tyranny, mass impoverishment and shocking devastation.
It is true that through all these horrors there were important advances in the ability of humans to control and manipulate the forces of nature. We have a vastly greater capacity to do so today than just a few centuries ago. We live in a world in which natural forces are no longer necessarily able to make people starve or freeze to death, in which many diseases that once terrified people and led to an early death have been abolished. But it has not been without a cost and loss.
Modern state capitalism with its global reach had bequeathed to us an socio-economic system which is almost entirely instrumental and callously utilitarian. It's a way of life dedicated to power, profit, and the business of material survival and covetousness, rather than fostering values of human sharing, caring, community and solidarity. The political realm has become primarily a question of management and manipulation rather than of the communal creation of a common life aimed at the common good. Even reason itself had been defiled, reduced to mere self-interested calculation and cost-benefit analysis. As for civility and morality, these too have become an increasingly private affair, more relevant to the bedroom than the boardroom. Business ethics is nothing but a vacuous worn out oxymoron that never had any moral validity or relevance. The premises of globalization, free trade and deregulation are that rules of decency, caring and civility need not apply to corporations (now granted the same legal status of blood and guts humans) and their voracious executives. Those rules are inconvenient to the capitalist dictum of maximizing profit, salaries and bonuses of executives and shareholder dividends. Ethical rules and moral constraints are for suckers and only need to be applied to the rest of us. We now live in an era of inequality that is historically unprecedented. Welcome to feudalism - but Christians can take consolation in the imminence of the Rapture.
Cultural life under capitalism had grown more important in one sense, burgeoning into a whole industry or branch of material production and mindless distraction. In another sense it has dwindled to the window-dressing of a social order which had exceedingly little time for anything it could not measure, predict or calculate. Corporations know the price of everything but the value of nothing and culture is now largely a matter of how to keep people harmlessly docile and distracted when they are not working at their mind numbing minimum wage jobs. Ask a young high school graduate what he's planning to study at college and the typical answers are crassly banal, materialistic, vocational and mercenary: "I'll be studying business or marketing."
The idea of going to University to have your mind expanded, to learn how to think critically by experiencing a liberal education is being sadly eroded by the corporatization of our public schools and Universities. The more the humanities have been harnessed to the needs of the global economy, the more they abandoned the projects of science, history, literature and inquiry into fundamental philosophical questions. Psychics, quacks, Tarot card readers and other purveyors of pseudoscience, pyramid, Q-ray and power bracelet scammers, avatars of Atlantis, Nostradamus and fundamentalist prophetic Christian evangelism, a continuous chain of New Age charlatans who write the mind-numbing top selling Chicken Soup for the Soul books, imbecilic television shows about ancient aliens, Bigfoot and the paranormal, metaphysical rubbish in books such as The Secret have rushed to fill the void. One would need pages to list them all.
Whatever did exist of the life of the intellect, critical thought and introspection is being supplanted by fatuous distractions such as sports, semi-literate social media like twitter and face book, spectacle shock therapy and celebrity worship. Books with titles like Metaphysics for Merchant Bankers and Chicken Soup for the Hedge Fund Trader's Soul or the latest drivel by Deepak Chopra or Wayne Dyer and are eagerly consumed. The vast majority of television programs are an intellectual wasteland of diversion, trivia, gossip, new barbaric "sports" like UFC and endless mindless claptrap.
Moreover, capitalism has not been able to eliminate gross economic inequities, the periodic devastation of hundreds of millions of lives through exploitation, hunger, malnutrition, war and systematic genocide. The record of the 20th century alone aptly demonstrates that. It was a century in which industrial capitalism finally took over the whole world, so that even the most remote peasant or herder is held hostage to the control and vagaries of the market. It was also a century of war, butchery, deprivation and cruelty to match any in the past, so much so that the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin described it as "the most terrible century in Western history". There has been nothing in the last decades of the century nor the first decade of the 21st to suggest things have magically improved for humanity as a whole. In fact conditions have dramatically worsened with the richest 400 people in the world controlling more of the world's wealth bottom 45%. We've witnessed the wholesale impoverishment of the former Eastern bloc, repeated famines and seemingly endless civil wars in different parts of Africa, four and a half million people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos murdered by the Us military, nearly half of Latin America’s people living below the poverty line, an eight year war between Iran and Iraq, and imperialistic military onslaughts by coalitions of the world’s most powerful capitalist states against Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. What country is next? Iran?
History has not ended as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed 20 years ago following the demise of the Soviet Union, and the need to understand its main features is a great as ever. Since the global financial collapse of 2007-09 we've seen trillions of dollars funnelled into the hands of the criminal financial vultures on Wall Street who were the perpetrators, all at the expense of the working classes. The United States and Europe are in a state of chaos, unrest and economic decline not seen since the Great Depression.
The world as the first decade of the 21st century has past has been one of both government and corporate corruption, unmitigated greed, gross and growing inequalities between rich and poor, of racist and national chauvinist prejudice, barbarous practices, horrific imperialistic wars and global economic collapse and chaos. No one can now deny the colossal failure of the economic model that has dominated the global economy, especially the toxic variant that has prevailed for the past four decades. It is very easy to believe that this is what things have always been like and that, therefore, they can be no different. Such a message is promulgated by innumerable reactionary writers and philosophers, politicians and sociologists, journalists and psychologists. They portray hierarchy, deference, greed and brutality as "natural" features of human behaviour. Indeed, there are some who would see these as a feature throughout the animal kingdom, a "socio-biological" imperative imposed by the alleged "laws" of genetics.
Here is Terry Eagleton again from Why Marx was Right:
Spectacular inequalities of wealth and power, imperial warfare, intensified exploitation, an increasingly repressive state: if all these characterize today's world, they are also the issues on which Marxism has acted and reflected for almost two centuries. One would expect, then, that it might have a few lessons to teach the present. Marx himself was particularly struck by the extraordinarily violent process by which an urban working class had been forged out of an uprooted peasantry in his own adopted country of England—a process which Brazil, China, Russia and India are living through today. Tristram Hunt points out that Mike Davis' book Planet of Slums, which documents the "stinking mountains of shit" known as slums to be found in the Lagos or Dhaka of today, can be seen as an updated version of Engels's The Condition of the Working Class. As China becomes the workshop of the world, Hunt comments, "the special economic zones of Guangdong and Shanghai appear eerily reminiscent of 1840s Manchester and Glasgow." (pp. 8-9)
Yet such cynical caricatures of depraved human behaviour are simply not borne out by what we now know about the lives our ancestors lived in the innumerable generations before written history. An accumulation of scientific evidence shows that their societies were not characterised by competition, conflict, inequality and oppression. These things are, rather, the product of history, and of rather recent history. The evidence comes from archaeological findings about patterns of human behaviour worldwide until only about 5,000 years ago, and from anthropological studies of indigenous societies in different parts of the world which remained organised along similar socially stable conditions until the 19th and earlier part of the 20th century. Before the rise of the organized religion, feudalism and the state and the subsequent entrenchment of social inequality, people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based anarchistic societies, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalised reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations. And in most instances these indigenous cultures were far more democratic than their so-called enlightenment conquerors and exploiters. Women in particular had far more status and power within indigenous societies than in so-called enlightened and primarily Christian populated Western cultures.
In other words, people shared with and helped each other, with no rulers and no ruled, no rich and no poor. It reflects a phrase used by Frederick Engels in the 1880s to describe this mutual state of affairs, what he called "primitive communism". His point is of enormous import. Our species (modern humans, or Homo sapiens) is over 100,000 years old. For 95 percent of this time it has not been characterised at all by many of the forms of behaviour ascribed to "human nature" today. Any theory of society is undeniably dependent on a theory of human nature. But there is nothing built into our biology that necessarily makes present day hyper-competitive rapacious capitalist societies the way they are.
There's no good evidence or argument that our precarious predicament as we face a an uncertain future can be blamed on our alleged depraved "human nature" rather than culturally inculcated norms. Those who believe humans are intrinsically selfish and malevolent, like most Christians and other conservatives, lean towards an interventionist, controlling and coercive state. What conservatives rarely consider are that those who hold the reins of power are very likely to be in need of "controlling" even more than those over whom they have power. In other words, who controls the behaviour of the "controllers"? This is a stark lesson of history that no one can reasonably deny.
Many on the political right argue that socialism "doesn't work".5 Socialism, and especially Anarchism are generally dismissed as utopian with cavalier disdain from many intellectuals who ought to know better and who have unthinkingly accepted the standard cant of conservative propaganda6. From the premise of "not working" they fallaciously conclude that they are false. Whether something (in this case a political doctrine) "works (i.e., is practical or pragmatic) one cannot imply it is false. One should also ask: "But does not work for whom? Socialism perhaps may not "work" well for people like Donald Trump, Warren Buffet, Mitt Romney and other capitalist vultures and parasites. At the very least, socialism puts a human face on the hideous spectre of capitalism, mitigating it's considerable ethical shortcomings. It's important to frequently remind ourselves that both socialism and capitalism are mere human constructs, not salvation plans for the human race handed down from a deity or laws of physics. In any event there is no such salvation; both have their positive and negative upshots.7
I conclude this paper with a quote from Terry Eagleton once again. It's an ominous message that we ought to take seriously:
"The two great threats to human survival that now confront us are military and environmental. They are likely to converge more and more in the future, as struggles over scarce resources escalate into armed conflict. Over the years, communists have been among the most ardent advocates of peace, and the reason for this is ably summarized by Ellen Meiksins Wood. "It seems to me axiomatic," she writes, "that the expansionary, competitive and exploitative logic of capitalist accumulation in the context of the nation-state system must, in the longer or shorter term, be destabilizing, and that capitalism . . . is and will for the foreseeable future remain the greatest threat to world peace." If the peace movement is to grasp the root causes of global aggression, it cannot afford to ignore the nature of the beast that breeds it. And this means that it cannot afford to ignore the insights of Marxism.
The same goes for environmentalism. Wood argues that capitalism cannot avoid ecological devastation, given the antisocial nature of its drive to accumulate. The system may come to tolerate racial and gender equality, but it cannot by its nature achieve world peace or respect the material world. Capitalism, Wood comments, "may be able to accommodate some degree of ecological care, especially when the technology of environmental protection is itself profitably marketable. But the essential irrationality of the drive for capital accumulation, which subordinates everything to the requirements of the self-expansion of capital and so-called growth, is unavoidably hostile to ecological balance". The old communist slogan "Socialism or barbarism" always seemed to some a touch too apocalyptic. As history lurches towards the prospect of nuclear warfare and environmental catastrophe, it is hard to see how it is less than the sober truth. If we do not act now, it seems that capitalism will be the death of us." (pp. 236-37)
We hear much about "bullying" in our schools. Of course it's always been there. But how is it possible to teach our kids compassion and caring in a world when the biggest capitalist empire is also the world's biggest bully, living by only one rule, "might is right", bombing into oblivion any country that threatens its hegemony or that provides natural resources it can control and exploit for the profit of its corporate masters.
1. A large part of the reason why Creationist and Intelligent Design arguments against evolution can sound persuasive is because they don't address evolution, but rather a straw man version, a set of gross misunderstandings that intelligent and knowledgeable people are right to consider preposterous. Creationists wrongly believe that their perception of evolution is what the theory actually states, and thus declare it fatally flawed, even falsified. The situation is exacerbated by deficient science education and understanding of science generally. Despite the fact that evolution is the foundation of modern biology, most beginning college biology students don't even properly understand evolutionary theory.
2. Historically, many anarchists have overwhelmingly rejected Marxism, particularly its hierarchical nature and theories of historical materialism. The intellectual altercations between Karl Marx and Michael Bakunin are legendary. But some forms of Western anarchism, notably anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism (the anarchism accepted by Noam Chomsky) have accepted much of the Marxian analysis of class division, inequality and exploitation in capitalist society.
3. Considering these difficulties, it is not surprising that, despite Kant’s defence, many people continue to believe that ethical theories are useless in practice. Contemporary philosophers who work in “applied ethics,” particularly in bioethics, often say this. Part of the problem is that every general ethical theory seems flawed, for reasons such as we have mentioned. But even setting that aside, the precepts of ethical theory seem too neat and abstract to be of any use in dealing with real cases, which are messy and particular.
Is this a fair complaint? Suppose it were said that physics is irrelevant to automobile mechanics, because a mechanic cannot “apply” the principles of physics to determine what is wrong with a car? Or that biology is irrelevant to medicine because a physician cannot “apply” the principles of biology to diagnose a patient’s illness? Such remarks would seem very odd. Certainly, the highest-level laws of physics are not of much use to the auto mechanic; nevertheless, cars obey physical laws, and a working knowledge of scientific principles is often useful. The same may be said of the physician’s knowledge of biology: while a good doctor needs to know a lot more than biology, in many instances a working knowledge of biology might be critical.
The relation of ethical theory to practice might be like the relation between biology and medicine. Just as fundamental research in biology may sometimes concern matters distant from the physician’s problems, fundamental issues in ethical theory might sometimes seem far from issues of practical choice. Moreover, as in medicine, practical judgment in ethics may require more than theoretical knowledge, and theory may be more useful in some instances than in others. But this does not mean that ethical theory is useless in practical decision-making, any more than biology is useless in medicine. In both areas, Kant’s remark might be apt: “No-one can pretend to be practically versed in a branch of knowledge and yet treat theory with scorn, without exposing the fact that he is an ignoramus in his subject.” [James Rachels, The Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2nd edition, ed. Lawrence Becker and Charlotte Becker (New York: Routledge, 2001), vol. 3, pp. 1706-1708.]
4. See Noam Chomsky's essay "The Soviet Union v Socialism" and a brief interview he gave on the same issue. For Chomsky's views on anarchism, and specifically anarcho-syndicalism, see his Chomsky on Anarchism (2005) and his brief analysis in this video.
Many people who are sufficiently well read to understand communism and socialism and their dissimilarities have no idea what real anarchism entails. Anarchism as a political philosophy has been so much maligned by the propaganda of conservative elites and their media as to be unrecognizable. It has a rich intellectual tradition that most are not aware. I would venture to say anyone who values real freedom and social cohesion (not the faux parliamentarian "democracy" we suffer under) and expresses disdain for hierarchy and authoritarianism in all its forms is an anarchist - but just doesn't know it yet.
The extreme concern for the sovereignty of individual choice not only dominates anarchist ideas of revolutionary tactics and of the future structure of society; it also explains the anarchist rejection of democracy as well as autocracy. No conception of anarchism is further from the truth than that which regards it as an extreme or purist form of pre-existing forms of democracy. Traditional forms of democracy advocate the sovereignty of the people whereas anarchism advocates the sovereignty of the individual. This means that anarchists routinely reject many of the conceptions, forms and perspectives of what we presently call democracy. Parliamentary institutions are condemned because they mean that the individual abdicates his autonomy by handing it over to a representative; once he has done this, decisions may be reached in his name over which he no longer has any control. This is why anarchists regard elections and voting as an act that betrays freedom, both symbolically and in reality. "Universal Suffrage is the Counter-Revolution," cried Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and none of his successors has contradicted him. As the greatest female anarchist Emma Goldman once proclaimed, "If voting actually changed anything, it would be made illegal."
Oscar Wilde once said that "there is no necessity to separate the monarchy from the mob; all authority is equally bad." Proudhon was thinking of democracies as well as the Emperor Napoleon III when he declared: "Whoever puts his hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant; I declare him my enemy." Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a general acceptance of anarchist philosophy is the ambivalence and apathy of the average person's attitude to freedom and his blind deference to authority. It's depressing to contemplate, but many people actually fear freedom, not only the freedom to act, but more importantly, the freedom to think for themselves. How else do you explain the attraction of religion?
5. Anyone who makes the claim that "socialism doesn't work" without hesitation ought to exempt themselves from social security, government health care services, roads and highways, public education, sidewalks, public parks, police and fire protection, postal services, government pensions, public water, garbage and sewage systems, museums and libraries, unemployment insurance and government agencies that protect the public from food contamination and other risks, "This Hour has 22 Minutes", classical music and other great diminishing programs (thanks to Stephen Harper and other philistine conservative ideologues) on CBC, etc, etc. Do I need to continue?
6. Conservative propaganda about anarchists as bomb throwing lunatics an anarchism as chaos and nihilism still persist whenever anti-globalism or environmentalist protestors need to be vilified as criminals by governments and their lapdogs in the corporate press. Like the misinformation and outright lies about atheism, this egregious ploy by conservative political elites and religious institutions has worked for over a century now. Partly because of its protean nature, anarchism is not easily conceptualized. But one consistent thread in anarchist thought is its rejection of hierarchy and other forms of bogus democracy such as the parliamentary system. Anarchism promotes direct democracy from the bottom-up, not top-down. All power is suspect, regardless of context. It's helpful to understand anarchism by combining a socialist critique both of conservatism and capitalism with a liberal critique of socialism in the sense of a libertarian rejection of the state.
History teaches that hierarchies such as religion and the state have consistently been bastions of the status quo of pyramidal top down authoritarian socio-economic systems, regardless of what they are called. Anarchists focus on a communitarian form of human solidarity and may be understood as a most extreme form of "libertarian socialism", an expression often employed as a synonym. Anarchists have traditionally identified the major social, economic and political problems as consisting of domination and exploitation of laissez-faire state capitalism, it's ensuing inequalities and promotion of imperialism, militarism and war. Our so-called representative democracies and bureaucracies are nothing more than apparatuses for maintaining the interests of conservative power elites. Anarchists believe that there is always a problem involved with scale and that once anything achieves a certain size, corruption increases and democracy is diminished. See the recent piece on Leopold Kohr on the issue of "size". Anarchists value egalitarianism over inequality, cooperation over competition, worker control and self-management rather than the present authoritarian corporate management style, quality over quantity, individualism and creativity over conformity and standardization, bottom-up rather than top-down socio-political organization and delegation rather than representation.
There many historical treatises and biographies of anarchist philosophers such as Bakunin and Kropotkin (and one ought to read the primary sources) but one book that attempts to cover them all is Peter Marshall's Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. It's a good starting point for anyone seriously interested in understanding anarchism. Canadians might be interested in consulting Canada's most famous anarchist from UBC, George Woodcock, and his excellent survey called Anarchism.
7. Anyone who claims to be honest cannot deny that conservatives and socialists both promote big government. It's just a matter of whose interests are to be served under such government. Moreover, capitalism is not synonymous with democracy as the right wing propaganda organization, The Fraser Institute, would have us believe. Capitalism has adapted all too well to the extremes of the political right. It flourished in the Third Reich, in Italy under the corporatist fascism of Mussolini and flourishes in totalitarian states. China, under the control of the Communist Party, is arguably now the most efficient capitalist state in the world. Our current form of capitalism I refer to as The Conservative Corporate Welfare State, a form of state run capitalism or corporate welfare, a system of the rich for the rich and by the rich. This has become increasingly obvious to everyone since the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer bailouts of criminal financial institutions that brought on the global financial calamity of 2007-09 and subsequent depression. It's painfully ironic that capitalists pontificate endlessly about government staying out of their way, but it's an egregious lie. When they get into trouble or need stimulus, its various forms that include tax reductions, tax write-offs or bankruptcy protection and bailout money it's the Nanny State to the rescue with their golden parachute.
The military, public education and the political establishment (Parliament, the House of Representatives, the Senate, Judiciary, etc.) are the three most socialized institutions. All politicians, including the most regressive conservatives enjoy their benefits and full pensions after toiling for 8 years, deceiving and lying to the public - while they look after those who underwrite their campaigns.. The military, police and firemen receive attractive benefits and can receive a pension based on 20 years experience but ironically are quite often the most ossified of conservatives. Teachers on the other hand, in addition to having to attend university for a minimum of five or six years must work 35 years before qualifying for a pension. Most teachers however usually either quit in frustration over working conditions and paltry compensation or simply flame out long before the 35 years are up.
In recent polls, Tommy Douglas, the father of our Universal Medicare, had been chosen as Canada's most admired political figure in history. But ironically when it comes to voting, most reject the socialist party he once led, a party that has moved so far to the right, Douglas himself, were he alive today, would not recognize it.
*For a view on how socialists are depicted by the shrill fanatics on the neo-conservative right watch this interview with a real live socialist, Mike Davis.: