Melbourne Anarchist Archives Index

Relevance of Anarchism (1967?)

The word "anarchism" has various associations: bearded terrorists or cataclysmic revolution for the ordinary public, quaint village communities for the social anthropologist; and irrationalist revolutionary visions for the political scientists. Today it is more reasonably associated with campaigns for nuclear disarmament, pacifism and advocacy of free love and the freedom to read. Its diversity of images reflects the diversity of manifestations of the anarchist ideal through the last 200 years. Libertarian socialism or anarchism appeared first in William Godwin's writings on education and on the political order which incorporated many anarchistic criticisms of society coupled with an environmentalist theory of character and the vision of freedom.

Godwin's major work Political Justice inspired Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population as a rebuttal of the view that the whole of mankind, could be free and happy. The idea re-appeared in the writings of the French peasant socialist Proudhon who advocated credit banks for labour and produce exchange combined with a loose political federalism. Such ideas remainded the basis of constructive anarchist theory until the time of the syndicalists and anarcho-communists although the collectivists opposed the Proudhonian mutualists on the question of private property.

The next group of anarchists were the revolutionary collectivists grouped around Bakunin. Their criticisms of philosophy, religion and capitalist society were typical of the materialist socialism then forming the revolutionary current in the First International and hence Bakunin's writings in many ways remind one of Marx's except that whilst a brilliant thinker he was also an activist and rarely finished writing a pamphlet let alone a book. Marx and Bakunin were the leaders respectively of the authoritarian and the libertarian wings of the International and their clash destroyed the organisation. Most of Europe's revolutionary socialists - except the German - supported the anarchists and so even after Bakunin's death his vision of a cataclysmic revolution lived on. As a result anarchism is sometimes damned by those who have only read (quotes from) Bakunin - or the semi-syndicalist writer Sorel who saw revolution as a desirable moral regenerative.

Towards the end of the C19th anarcho-syndicalism was developed. This was the French idea of a confederation of loosely organised militant unions fighting the capitalists and their state and awaiting the revolutionary general strike when the existing syndicates and bourses du travail would form the basis of the now society.

About the same time anarchist-communists laid the theoretical foundations for anarchist social organisation on the basis of Kropotkin's theory of mutual aid in opposition to the capitalists adaptation of Darwin's theory of natural selection, i.e. survival of the fittest. All previous socialists had, of course, recognised the importance of mutual aid in society - even the individualist school of Max Stirner who envisaged a union of egoists - but Kropotkin connected this up with his biological and historical studies. The anarchist communists were as influenced by agrarian as industrial problems and there were peasant anarchist revolutions in Mexico, Spain, and the Ukraine. In Mexico the anarchists almost saved the revolution but were defeated by opportunistic ex-.peasant generals corrupted during the war. In the Ukraine the Makhnovist guerilla army defeated the Germans, helped defeat the White Russians and were finally defeated themselves by the Red Army under Trotsky during the period of the elimination of political opposition. The last major revolutionary endeavour was in Catalonia where peasant and industrial anarchists held almost complete economic power until destroyed in the political infighting promoted key the communists in their attempt to destroy the left and throttle the revolution.

By this time the vulgar marxian thesis of increasing misery for the working class was becoming increasingly irrelevant to western society and in order to become a social force again anarchists had to rethink their position - especially since their numbers were scattered and greatly diminished by persecution in the USSR, USA, German, Mexico and Spain and they were overshadowed by the rise of social-democratic reformism in the developed world and nationalist socialism in the under-developed counties. The results of such a rethinking are both interesting and depressing since along with a redefinition of revolution in evolutionist terms there has been a rise of pessimism which denies utopia to the point of denying the use of struggle, more constructively there has been a rise in interest in questions of education, work satisfaction, the problems facing youth, and questions of non-violence and nuclear disarmament.

The anarchist is not immoral or amoral as some have suggested since a revolutionary position must be fundamentally a moral one. His position is not that man is naturally good but that moral qualities are not in any sense natural, that the individual mind is plastic and that the child will to a greater or lesser extent reflect its society on coming to adulthood. Hence fundamental changes in society will vastly change what conservatives call human nature. Given this theory of the relationship of individual character to society the anarchists holds that many undesirable features of social life are strict consequences of the structure of society and that artificial structures such as institutional religion, the state, etc. are both unnecessary and pernicious in that they obstruct the "dangerous march of humanity" and suppress individual creativity and self-realisation. Further they produce authoritarian social relations and destroy the feelings of equality and individual social responsibility - the preconditions for healthy social relationships.

These empirical criticisms of the state are moral ones on the anarchist basis that personal relations, individual creativity, equality, belongingness and mutual aid are paramount values and that society should be reconstructed accordingly. These moral feelings are purely individual and are not to be considered a priori standards although occasionally confusion arises on this point - and the anarchist movement at any time consists of those who feel this way - and admit it. This is why much anarchist rational criticism sounds religious and why radical opinions are held with such fervour.

Hence basically anarchism is a moral position with social application nourished, if not by the objective possibility of the golden tomorrow, at least by the presence of that gold in the individual.

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