Thursday, 12 April 2012

Ideas to revisit (1) - anarchism

If you're left / green / Quaker / liberal, then Milton Friedman probably isn't one of your favourite thinkers! However, people we disagree with or dislike sometimes say things that are worth paying attention to. Milton Friedman said:
Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.
Part of the purpose of both the Good Lives Project and my Swarthmore Lecture is to support what we might call a 'preparedness' agenda - that's preparedness in terms of our own practical knowledge and skills, as well as another kind of preparedness: exploring, supporting and spreading ideas and ways of approaching new and difficult issues.

In this post I'm offering the first of an occasional series of 'ideas to revisit' - first, anarchism. Your initial reaction might be to assume that anarchism means chaos and disorder - think again!

What follows below is drawn from a recent article by David Goodway written for History and Policy. David, now retired from Leeds University, is an academic historian with an interest in radical movements, and particular knowledge of anarchism. His books include London Chartism, 1838-1848 (1982), Talking Anarchy (with Colin Ward) (2003) and Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward (2006).

History and Policy works for better public policy through an understanding of history by connecting historians, policy makers and the media. It is the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 300 historians with a broad range of expertise, offering a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists. These include policy papers and opinion pieces. You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and their mailing list.

David's article is titled 'Not protest but direct action: anarchism past and present'. Below are some excerpts, reproduced with  kind permission from both David and History and Policy. You can access the full article here and read him in The Guardian here.
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Fifty to sixty years ago anarchism appeared to be a spent force, as both a movement and a political theory, yet since the 1960s there has been a resurgence in Europe and North America of anarchist ideas and practice. Britain nowadays must have a greater number of conscious anarchists than at any previous point in its history. In addition there are many more who, while not identifying themselves as anarchists, think and behave in significantly anarchist ways.

Anarchists themselves disdain the customary use of 'anarchy' to mean 'chaos' or 'complete disorder'. For them it signifies the absence of a ruler or rulers in a self-managed society, usually resembling the 'co-operative commonwealth' that most socialists have traditionally sought, and more highly organized than the actual disorganization and chaos of the present. An anarchist society would be more ordered since the political theory of anarchism advocates organization from the bottom up with the federation of the self-governed entities - as opposed to order being imposed from the top down upon resisting individuals or groups.

Some history
The historic anarchist movement is identified with a workers' movement which flourished from the 1860s down to the close of the 1930s. However, there is a consensus that anarchist precursors can also be traced back to Chinese Taoism as well as to Classical Greece. It has been argued convincingly that the Mu'tazilite and Najdite Muslims of ninth-century Basra were anarchists. Examples begin to multiply in Europe from the Reformation of the sixteenth century and its forebears (for example, the German Anabaptists), and then the Renaissance and the English Revolution (not only the Diggers and Gerrard Winstanley but also the Ranters) in the sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries respectively.

In the industrializing societies of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries trade unionists and revolutionaries at times countered with unrestrained retaliation the brutal intimidation and suppression their strikes and insurrections provoked. From the late 1870s the anarchists added to the traditional 'propaganda by the word' - agitation utilizing the spoken and written word - 'propaganda by the deed', acts of revolt such as violent strikes, riots, assassinations and bombings intended to ignite popular uprisings. A further strategy dates from the 1890s when many anarchists began to focus on the trade unions as the primary organization for struggle. These decades of the heyday of international anarchism - subsequently weakened by the First World War - came substantially to an end as a consequence of the Russian Revolution.

One of the major strengths of anarchist thought has been its insistence that means determine ends and that the institutions built to engage in current social conflict will prefigure the institutions that will exist in a post-revolutionary order.

The profound cultural changes associated with the 1960s were responsible for a modest anarchist revival throughout Western Europe and North America. In Britain, for instance, the rise of the New Left and the nuclear disarmament movement in the late fifties, culminated in the student radicalism and general libertarianism and permissiveness, especially sexual, of the sixties, ensuring that a new audience receptive to anarchist attitudes came into existence. This anarchist resurgence climaxed with the remarkable events in France, where in May 1968 student revolutionaries fought the riot police, took over the Sorbonne, controlled the Latin Quarter, and precipitated the occupations of factories by their workers as well as a general strike.

The 'idea of anarchism' long predated the third quarter of the nineteenth century and this has survived the demise of the historic movement. Kropotkin believed that
'throughout the history of our civilization, two traditions, two opposing tendencies have confronted each other: the Roman and the Popular traditions; the imperial and the federalist; the authoritarian and the libertarian'.
Thus there is no reason for thinking that conflict between authoritarian and libertarian tendencies will ever cease; rather it seems to be inherent to the human condition and its socio-political arrangements. Indeed, from the 1960s the revival of anarchist ideas and practice has spread throughout Latin America and, after the collapse of Communism, to Eastern Europe. Moreover, the ideas and practice have become deeply embedded in the new social movements of the last half century, although the activists of the peace, women's and environmental movements are commonly unaware of this. Yet in contrast to the historic workers' movement, this anarchist revival has been without any kind of purchase on the labour movements of Europe and the Americas: contemporary anarchists today are rarely trade unionists.

British anarchists currently participating in demonstrations do so not as reformers but as anarchists. That is to say, anarchists differ from the adherents of almost every other ideology, as well as all advocates of specific political or social reforms, in having little or no interest in altering the policies of states, in shaping the opinions of politicians and decision-makers. They reject authority - seen as imposed from above - and seek to replace it with self-government: organization through co-operative associations, built and federated from the bottom upwards. 'Anarchist protest' therefore appears oxymoronic. If anarchists are participating in - or initiating - demonstrations, it is not authority holders they are attempting to influence but their fellow citizens, intending to galvanize them into action and to create alternative, non-hierarchical social structures.

The historic anarchist movement of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries had been grounded in the working class and peasantry and their institutions, but its philosophy had been prefigured over several centuries, even millennia, and on several continents. Its ideas and practices have been shared by the anarchists of the revival that has taken place since the 1960s, although these are socially a very different group. In particular, parliamentarianism and constitutional protest have been eschewed for direct action which may take two entirely different forms. Firstly, there are the symbolic actions, whether violent or non-violent, but usually illegal, intended as propaganda by the deed. Secondly, by occupying factories and then running them, for example, or following exemplary Green lifestyles in eco-communities, the existing social order may be bypassed by 'putting anarchism into action at the grassroots'.

Both of these forms of direct action can be seen as merely disruptive by those who believe that society has to be run from above if it is to be orderly and efficient. And either of them can easily be mixed up with any other form of violent protest by lazy commentators. However, as this brief history of the international movement has attempted to show, anarchism needs to be understood as a distinctive and coherent tradition of political theory and practice. This may help its own proponents to reflect on the some of the adverse consequences of violent action, and it may persuade the wider public to take its ideas and examples more seriously as a significant alternative approach to social change.
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Thanks to David for this piece. When I approached him for permission to use his material he emailed back saying,
I always say Quakers are in effect anarchists, yet usually they don't realise that they are...

1 comment:

  1. Quakerism probably has most in common with the 'Christian Anarchism' of Leo Tolstoy (eg in his book 'The Kingdom of God is Within You'). Tolstoy rejects State institutions, (including State religion) on the basis of their support for and practice of violence and oppression, and the impossibility of reconciling this with Christ's teaching of forgiveness and love of enemies.
    There certainly seems to be a strong anarchist influence on contemporary movements such as Occupy, which are very much based on 'bottom-up, self-governing associations' and consensus decision-making.
    I do have some reservations about the usefulness of this approach to political organising. It seems to rely on the assumption that humans are naturally good at getting on together, and only need oppressive authority to be removed to create just societies. There are plenty of societies around the world where oppressive State structures have been removed, and the most ruthless and aggressive groups have simply moved into the vacuum. Some of the refugees I have met from countries with 'failed States' have expressed their joy and relief at being in a country with a functioning rule of law, despite all of our system's inequities.
    The early Quaker approach to the State accepted its authority to 'wield the Sword' to maintain public order, while openly refusing to obey any law or command that infringed the 'Light in their consciences' (and accepting the consequences).
    Thanks for this post, and for all your work and ministry.