portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article

labor | political theory

anarchism and historical precedent

some questions about the precedents cited for anarchist societies
IN describing or defending anarchism, people have been providing some historical examples to show that it can really work. Unfortunately, I don't think the examples are relevant to our time or place in history. I'll tell you why, and then I hope folks might be able to convince me otherwise, or at least make some good points in trying.

People seem to cite three types of precedent (my grouping, not theirs), so let me take one at a time.

1)Revolutionary (or quasi-revolutionary) societies, esp Spain in the 30's or Argentina today.

Problem: revolutionary action tends to be short-lived. If it's not actually defeated, it typically collapses into an authoritarian regime that may enforce certain revolutionary principles at the expense of individual liberty. A communist dictatorship may be logically consistent, but an anarchist dictatorship? I don't think so.

Some will no doubt think that "our revolution" will be different, because it will be truly democratic, it will represent the people, etc. Every revolution thinks it's creating the world anew, but they seem to be subject to the same historical forces.

2)Tribal societies.

Problem: tribal societies are small compared to ours. What's more, everyone within the society is typically related through a broad kinship network. This kinship network provides both support services and conflict resolution that we look for in the state. Interactions between people not related through this network have a strong tendency to erupt into violence, which can sometimes go on for years.

Even if you accept that this kinship network demonstrates that we can organize ourselves without a state, it doesn't provide a useful model for us today. We simply don't have that kind of social structure to work with. And that assumes you don't even get into the next...

Problem: Both the tribe and the state are historical developments. Most societies, over the course of thousands of years, go from (loosely speaking) tribes or bands, to chiefdoms, to kingdoms, to states. Each step evolves to remedy the failures of the previous steps for a growing society. If we're trying to take a step beyond the state, we won't get there by looking behind us.

3)Current organizations, notably the IWW (City Bikes and the Red and Black also spring to mind, if I remember right)

Problem: these are not societies organizing themselves on an anarchist model. They are small pieces of a capitalist society, organizing small corners of that society. This isn't to say that they aren't good models for how we can organize ourselves within the current system. However, they have the luxury of drawing relatively like-minded people who perceive themselves as having a range of interests in common, instead of having to organize the range of people you might find in a large workplace or a neighborhood. Also, they can rely on the broader support mechanisms of the state-society within which they exist.

Please note that this is not a slam on these groups at all- just saying they don't necessarily provide a broader model.

I hate to be a naysayer, but I've read too much history to be able to ignore the lack of historical models for what the anarchists propose. My rational mind tells me that the state will one day give way to a new stage of development (and maybe soon, but that's another topic), and that our best bet is to create as much democracy as we can, so that the next stage will be off to a better start than the state was. Other parts of my mind insist that that's compromising bullshit, and that democracy's a scam anyway. Yet another part says I worry too much about it all, and should just go have a beer instead. That's the voice of wisdom, I think.


the sacred chao says...
mu
assumptions 15.Oct.2002 20:55

boo

Historical precedents demonstrate a level of plausibility but clearly not total plausibility for the theory as a whole. You raise a good point though. I think anarchism is an empirical theory which must adapt and be researched on the basis of real world experience. Dogma and stasis are for religions not practical and social solutions.

Also not all "anarchists" conceive of it on a mass societal level. It depends on the particular institution and situation spoken of. It may not be possbile to eliminate all hierarchy. Some institutions may be both necessarliy hierarchical and unavoidable [though the state, prison, police force, etc are not such examples]. See Chomsky's intro to Guerin's book called Anarchism.

mind over reason 15.Oct.2002 21:29

dizazt0r::blank1t

' It may not be possbile to eliminate all hierarchy'

--hierarchy can be eliminated by a simple thought: no one controls me.

anarchism stems--in my view--from the perception of the indiviudal, not from any group perceptions, for how can another perceive for you?

if you consider the institution of 'society' to be hierarchical, how is this the case? i say that hierarchy in the classic sense is based on the individuals understanding of the very environment they would appear to exist in. consider that it takes at least 2 humans to make valid the classification of "human(us)". 1 person alone is not a human, no matter who or what forces molded or caused for the existence of such a being. a [god] can't say 1 being 'is' human because "isness" involves 'comparison', it involves judgement--how can one judge which only one thing to compare to no other thing? blah blah, this conversation can get deeper.

here yare no trouble at all; thatquietalrite 16.Oct.2002 08:06

piet

Zube shows up - someone put some of his slogans online: butterbach.net/hyphen2.htm - long list of this sorta thing: Authoritarian anarchism vs. voluntary anarchism. --- Atheist anarchisms vs. christian or other religious anarchism. --- Back-to-basics anarchism vs. hyphenated forms of anarchism. (The attempts to find common ground, principles or characteristics, like voluntarism or non-domination over dissenters. Some anarchists are as afraid of diversity or "fragmentation" or disunity as are territorial politicians.) --- Back to nature anarchism vs. forward with nature anarchism. ------------ butterbach.net/freebank.htm 2.654K !!! document: UNTITLED - on Free Banking & Monetary Freedom -- --------butterbach.net/slogans.htm (679K) Freedom slogans ---- butterbach.net/lmp/ site for the libertarian microfiche series called peace plans (nearly up to 1800 of 'm) - butterbach.net/ads4book.htm a picture of one from the 40 piece series I bought on SF early eighties which helped mature my thinking a whole lot ---- wanna check out some polyarchy? (135K) --- butterbach.net/luege.htm (this 88K file is in German) this poor old geezer (who was '10 in '37 has been put through a courtcase by a 30 year old admirer of Bismarck and Haider?????
26889 Portland Anarchism is not an ideal nor a utopia longwinded spiels about anarchism - 7th comment: yall think you're diligent do you??????? piet 6:51am Wed Oct 16 '02 comment#27089 try this: 2.654K !!! document: UNTITLED - on Free Banking & Monetary Freedom - butterbach.net/freebank.htm ------- whoopsie, scuezme piet 7:01am Wed Oct 16 '02 comment#27091 the anarchy file (sampled above but mixed up with another ((the linked)) one is bigger that what you are looking at now (so far 69K not counting images) but not quite as big as that banking one (ps: for the dirt on soilbanking building and saving you might come see stuff via my site:  http://poetpiet.tripod.com). Here is the (52K) one chockablock with slogans and aphorisms called A SURVEY OF HYPHENATED ANARCHIST TYPES AND THEIR OPPOSITES butterbach.net/hyphen2.htm

Organizations vs. Societies 16.Oct.2002 08:12

Ethan Mitchell tr11@sover.net

I think the point brought up by the sacred chao is very important, and it encloses a distinction which anarchists don't often make very well. An organization is a group of people, rarely largely than hundreds, which has some direct intercourse and shared goals. Such a group can legitimately be said to have a free social contract (pactum societatis) with or without hierarchy. I think no one would argue that such groups exist without hierarchy, or with minimal hierarchy. Affinity groups, co-operatives, and Quaker meetings all come to mind.

A *society*, on the other hand, is a much larger beast, and is usually construed geographically. The assumption is that societies have shared goals even without the direct intercourse of all the individuals. Governments have legitimized these goals through the idea of the implicit, unavoidable social contract (pactum subjectionis), which is obviously a fiction. I think that most anarchists are dismissive of society at this level, preferring to see the world as a mosaic of individuals and organizations.

But OK, says the sacred chao, how does all this play in Peoria? Well, whatever we think of society-at-large, we have to examine how organizations interact with each other (I am leaving individuals out of the discussion only for convenience; obviously they are still there). A "society" is not a monolithic production of government, although governments like to see it that way. It is a network of interacting organizations.

*Most* organizations, in fact, interact via non-violence and mutual aid. The economy, the scholium, charitable groups, "special-interest" groups, churches--all these things organize and interact on a more or less anarchic basis. I do not point a gun at my greengrocer, and she does not point a gun at me. The only real exceptions to this rule are, in fact, government institutions. Even there, most government institutions do not rely on direct violence, but rather on the threat of eventual violence. The IRS has no guns.

Now, the sacred chao will doubtless argue that it is only government violence which *allows* the other groups to exist in freedom from violence. This concept does not make sense to me: if anything the opposite is true. Partnership with government violence allows a non-state institution like ExxonMobil to pursue violent and coersive policies of its own. Arguably, if ExxonMobil did not have the support and subsidization of the US government, they could not go off butchering people in Africa with impunity.

But perhaps the problem, sacred chao, is that most of the studies about social self-organization have been carried out by the right-wing: anarcho-capitalists and libertarians. The left is, for good reason, hellbent on attacking corporations, and we are not disposed to think of economics as (positive) anarchy. But that is very much the case. Governments did not invent medicines, health insurance, trains, factories(!), labor unions, cooperatives, or even (despite the claims of ARPAnet) the internet. Governments have always funded the book-burners, and the role of universities has been to outsmart them.

Nearly everything vital about society, in fact, exists in spite of, rather than due to, government coersion. A little empirical research here goes a long way. Do you think police affect the crime rate? Do you think the state cares for the poor? Do you think our ecocidal car fetish was produced by the free market? None of that.

If you want to read about social anarchism, I would not start with anarchists. Read Rothbard, Hayek, even Milton Friedman. Yes, these authors disparge co-operatives and unions, and Friedman is a crypto-fascist. But the meat of their argument is anarchic, and makes more sense (unfortunately) than most of what leftist anarchists have produced to date in English.

Mu! -Ethan

etc 16.Oct.2002 20:00

sacred chao

Thanks, Ethan. Yeah, I left the right-libertarians out of it because it seemed like a whole separate can of worms to be opening. But it's exactly the failure of the left-libertarians to address those issues that encourages me to poke around with awkward questions.

You may not be shooting it out with your greengrocer, but if you try to walk out with a fat steak under your shirt (or an equivalent vegan product, if you prefer), the state provides a framework in which the grocer's problem with you can be resolved. I don't think our legal system is worth standing up for, but anyone who proposes to do away with the state should probably have some alternative social process for resolving this sort of conflict. Even if there are no for-profit grocery stores in an anarchy, it's not hard to imagine that binding conflict resolution will be required from time to time.

I also think the state does (or at least, can) provide services for the poor. Not the way I would do it, not in a way you might call "care" for the poor, but yes, they provide some services. Again, if we eliminate the state, we need a new social framework to replace this function.

Why do we have to choose between believing that things exist either because of government or despite it? Let's not elevate the state to the ultimate cause of all effects. It's merely one part of our society. Crime, cars, poverty have a complex relationship with the state. The state can't create them or destroy them, but it can influence how they play out.

I think that dismissing society at the largest level, leaving it to "a mosaic of individuals and organizations", neglects a necessary part of the theory. But I should probably check out Boo's reference before I dig into that.

My own tendency, for what it's worth, is probably center-libertarian. If you want to leave people to live their lives as they will, it's hard to see how you can impose either cooperation or competition on people who don't want to play. History shows that societies typically evolve a complex interaction between the two, anyway.

Boo, regarding empirical theory, my basic theory of politics is from Ed Abby (through the mouth of Doc Sarvis). I'm probably mangling it, but here goes:

"We will let our practice form our doctrine, thus ensuring precise theoretical coherence."

mu quack

Spain=Role of Anarchism 17.Oct.2002 10:37

Leon Trotsky

Role of the Anarchists
The Anarchists had no independent position of any kind in the Spanish revolution. All they did was waver between Bolshevism and Menshevism. More precisely, the Anarchist workers instinctively yearned to enter the Bolshevik road (July 19, 1936, and May days of 1937) while their leaders, on the contrary, with all their might drove the masses into the camp of the Popular Front, i.e., of the bourgeois regime.

The Anarchists revealed a fatal lack of understanding of the laws of the revolution and its tasks by seeking to limit themselves to their own trade unions, that is, to organizations permeated with the routine of peaceful times, and by ignoring what went on outside the framework of the trade unions, among the masses, among the political parties, and in the government apparatus. Had the Anarchists been revolutionists, they would first of all have called for the creation of soviets, which unite the representatives of all the toilers of city and country, including the most oppressed strata, who never joined the trade unions. The revolutionary workers would have naturally occupied the dominant position in these soviets. The Stalinists would have remained an insignificant minority. The proletariat would have convinced itself of its own invincible strength. The apparatus of the bourgeois state would have hung suspended in the air. One strong blow would have sufficed to pulverize this apparatus. The socialist revolution would have received a powerful impetus. The French proletariat would not for long permitted Leon Blum to blockade the proletariat revolution beyond the Pyrenees. Neither could the Moscow bureaucracy have permitted itself such a luxury. The most difficult questions would have been solved as they arose.

Instead of this, the anarcho-syndicalists, seeking to hide from "politics" in the trade unions, turned out to be, to the great surprise of the whole world and themselves, a fifth wheel in the cart of bourgeois democracy. But not for long; a fifth wheel is superfluous. After Garcia Oliver and his cohorts helped Stalin and his henchmen to take power away from the workers, the anarchists themselves were driven out of the government of the Popular Front. Even then they found nothing better to do than jump on the victor's bandwagon and assure him of their devotion. The fear of the petty bourgeois before the big bourgeois, of the petty bureaucrat before the big bureaucrat, they covered up with lachrymose speeches about the sanctity of the united front (between a victim and the executioners) and about the inadmissibility of every kind of dictatorship, including their own. "After all, we could have taken power in July 1936..." "After all, we could have taken power in May 1937..." The Anarchists begged Stalin-Negrin to recognize and reward their treachery to the revolution. A revolting picture!

In and of itself, this self-justification that "we did not seize power not because we were unable but because we did not wish to, because we were against every kind of dictatorship," and the like, contains an irrevocable condemnation of anarchism as an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine. To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest power.

No one could have prevented the Anarchists after the conquest of power from establishing the sort of regime they deem necessary, assuming, of course, that their program is realizable. But the Anarchist leaders themselves lost faith in it. They hid from power not because they are against "every kind of dictatorship"- in actuality, grumbling and whining, they supported and still support the dictatorship of Stalin-Negrin- but because they completely lost their principles and courage, if they ever had any. They were afraid of everything: "isolation," "involvement," "fascism." They were afraid of France and England. More than anything these phrasemongers feared the revolutionary masses.

The renunciation of the conquest of power inevitably throws every workers' organization into the swamp of reformism and turns it into a toy of the bourgeoisie; it cannot be otherwise in view of the class structure of society. In opposing the goal, the conquest of power, the Anarchists could not in the end fail to oppose the means, the revolution. The leaders of the CNT and FAI not only helped the bourgeoisie hold on to the shadow of power in July 1936; they also helped it to reestablish bit by bit what it had lost at one stroke. In May 1937, they sabotaged the uprising of the workers and thereby saved the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Thus anarchism, which wished merely to be anti-political, proved in reality to be anti-revolutionary and in the more critical moments- counterrevolutionary.

The Anarchist theoreticians, who after the great test of 1931-37 continue to repeat the old reactionary nonsense about Kronstadt, and who affirm that "Stalinism is the inevitable result of Marxism and Bolshevism," simply demonstrate by this they are forever dead for the revolution.

You say that Marxism is in itself depraved and Stalinism is its legitimate progeny? But why are we revolutionary Marxists engaged in mortal combat with Stalinism throughout the world? Why does the Stalinist gang see in Trotskyism it chief enemy? Why does every approach to our views or our methods of action (Durruti, Andres, Nin, Landau, and others) compel the Stalinist gangsters to resort to bloody reprisals. Why, on the other hand, did the leaders of Spanish anarchism serve, during the time of the Moscow and Madrid crimes of the GPU, as ministers under Caballero-Negrin, that is as servants of the bourgeoisie and Stalin? Why even now, under the pretext of fighting fascism, do the Anarchists remain voluntary captives of Stalin-Negrin, the executioners of the revolution, who have demonstrated their incapacity to fight fascism?

By hiding behind Kronstadt and Makhno, the attorneys of anarchism will deceive nobody. In the Kronstadt episode and the struggle with Makhno, we defended the proletarian from the peasant counterrevolution. The Spanish Anarchists defended and continue to defend bourgeois counterrevolution from the proletariat revolution. No sophistry will delete from the annals of history the fact that anarchism and Stalinism in the Spanish revolution were on one side of the barricades while the working masses with the revolutionary Marxists were on the other. Such is the truth which will forever remain in the consciousness of the proletariat!