- View SourceNews & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
by Bob Black
What is "anarchism"? What is "anarchy"? Who are "anarchists"?
Anarchism is an idea about the best way to live. Anarchy is
a way of living.
Anarchism is the idea that government (the state) is
unnecessary and harmful. Anarchy is society without
government. Anarchists are people who believe in anarchism
and desire to live in anarchy as all our ancestors once did.
People who believe in government (such as liberals,
conservatives, socialists and fascists) are known as "statists."
It might sound like anarchism is purely negative -- that
it's just against something. Actually, anarchists have many
positive ideas about life in a stateless society. But,
unlike Marxists, liberals and conservatives, they don't
offer a blueprint.
Aren't anarchists bomb-throwers?
No -- at least not compared to, say the United States
Government, which drops more bombs every day on Iraq than
anarchists have thrown in the almost 150 years they have
been a political movement. Why do we never hear of
"bomb-throwing Presidents"? Does it matter if bombs are
delivered horizontally by anarchists rather than vertically
by the U.S. Government?
Anarchists have been active for many years and in many
countries, under autocratic as well as democratic
governments. Sometimes, especially under conditions of
severe repression, some anarchists have thrown bombs. But
that has been the exception. The "bomb-throwing anarchist"
stereotype was concocted by politicians and journalists in
the late 19th century, and they still won't let go of it,
but even back then it was a gross exaggeration.
Has there ever been an anarchist society that worked?
Yes, many thousands of them. For their first million years
or more, all humans lived as hunter-gatherers in small bands
of equals, without hierarchy or authority. These are our
ancestors. Anarchist societies must have been successful,
otherwise none of us would be here. The state is only a few
thousand years old, and it has taken that long for it to
subdue the last anarchist societies, such as the San
(Bushmen), the Pygmies and the Australian aborigines.
But we can't go back to that way of life.
Nearly all anarchists would agree. But it's still an
eye-opener, even for anarchists, to study these societies,
and perhaps to pick up some ideas on how a completely
voluntary, highly individualistic, yet cooperative society
might work. To take just one example, anarchist foragers and
tribesmen often have highly effective methods of conflict
resolution including mediation and nonbinding arbitration.
Their methods work better than our legal system because
family, friends and neighbors of the disputants encourage
disputants to agree, helped by sympathetic and trustworthy
go-betweens, to find some reasonable resolution of the
problem. In the 1970s and 1980s, academic supposed experts
tried to transplant some of these methods into the American
legal system. Naturally the transplants withered and died,
because they only live in a free society.
Anarchists are naïve: they think human nature is essentially
Not so. It's true that anarchists reject ideas of innate
depravity or Original Sin. Those are religious ideas which
most people no longer believe in. But anarchists don't
usually believe that human nature is essentially good
either. They take people as they are. Human beings aren't
"essentially" anything. We who live under capitalism and its
ally, the state, are just people who have never had a chance
to be everything we can be.
Although anarchists often make moral appeals to the best in
people, just as often they appeal to enlightened
self-interest. Anarchism is not a doctrine of
self-sacrifice, although anarchists have fought and died for
what they believe in. Anarchists believe that the
carrying-out of their basic idea would mean a better life
for almost everyone.
How can you trust people not to victimize each other without
the state to control crime?
If you can't trust ordinary people not to victimize each
other, how can you trust the state not to victimize us all?
Are the people who get into power so unselfish, so
dedicated, so superior to the ones they rule? The more you
distrust your fellows, the more reason there is for you to
become an anarchist. Under anarchy, power is reduced and
spread around. Everybody has some, but nobody has very much.
Under the state, power is concentrated, and most people have
none, really. Which kind of power would you like to go up
But -- let's get real -- what would happen if there were no
As anarchist Allen Thornton observes, "Police aren't in the
protection business; they're in the revenge business."
Forget about Batman driving around interrupting crimes in
progress. Police patrol does not prevent crime or catch
criminals. When police patrol was discontinued secretly and
selectively in Kansas City neighborhoods, the crime rate
stayed the same. Other research likewise finds that
detective work, crime labs, etc. have no effect on the crime
rate. But when neighbors get together to watch over each
other and warn off would-be criminals, criminals try another
neighborhood which is protected only by the police. The
criminals know that they are in little danger there.
But the modern state is deeply involved in the regulation of
everyday life. Almost every activity has some sort of state
That's true -- but when you think about it, everyday life is
almost entirely anarchist. Rarely does one encounter a
policeman, unless he is writing you a traffic ticket for
speeding. Voluntary arrangements and understandings prevail
almost everywhere. As anarchist Rudolph Rocker wrote: "The
fact is that even under the worst despotism most of man's
personal relations with his fellows are arranged by free
agreement and solidaric cooperation, without which social
life would not be possible at all."
Family life, buying and selling, friendship, worship, sex,
and leisure are anarchist. Even in the workplace, which many
anarchists consider to be as coercive as the state, workers
notoriously cooperate, independent of the boss, both to
minimize work and to get it done. Some people say anarchy
doesn't work. But it's almost the only thing that does! The
state rests, uneasily, on a foundation of anarchy, and so
does the economy.
Anarchism has always attracted generous and creative spirits
who have enriched our culture. Anarchist poets include Percy
Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, and Lawrence
Ferlinghetti. American anarchist essayists include Henry
David Thoreau and, in the 20th century, the Catholic
anarchist Dorothy Day, Paul Goodman, and Alex Comfort
(author of The Joy of Sex). Anarchist scholars include the
linguist Noam Chomsky, the historian Howard Zinn, and the
anthropologists A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Pierre Clastres.
Anarchist literary figures are way too numerous to list but
include Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, and Mary Shelley (author
of Frankenstein). Anarchist painters include Gustav Courbet,
Georges Seurat, Camille Pissarro, and Jackson Pollock. Other
creative anarchists include such musicians as John Cage,
John Lennon, the band CRASS, etc.
Supposing you're right, that anarchy is a better way to live
than what we have now, how can we possibly overthrow the
state if it's as powerful and oppressive as you say it is?
Anarchists have always thought about this question. They
have no single, simple answer. In Spain, where there were
one million anarchists in 1936 when the military attempted a
coup, they fought the Fascists at the front at the same time
that they supported workers in taking over the factories,
and the peasants in forming collectives on the land.
Anarchists did the same thing in the Ukraine in 1918-1920,
where they had to fight both the Czarists and the
Communists. But that's not how we will bring down the system
in the world of the 21st century.
Consider the revolutions that overthrew Communism in Eastern
Europe. There was some violence and death involved, more in
some countries than in others. But what brought down the
politicians, bureaucrats and generals -- the same enemy we
face -- was most of the population just refusing to work or
do anything else to keep a rotten system going. What were
the commissars in Moscow or Warsaw to do, drop nuclear
weapons on themselves? Exterminate the workers that they
were living off?
Most anarchists have long believed that what they call a
general strike could play a large part in crumbling the
state. That is, a collective refusal to work.
If you're against all government, you must be against democracy.
If democracy means that people control their own lives, then
all anarchists would be, as American anarchist Benjamin
Tucker called them, "unterrified Jeffersonian democrats" --
they would be the only true democrats. But that's not what
democracy really is. In real life, a part of the people (in
America, almost always a minority of the people) elect a
handful of politicians who control our lives by passing laws
and using unelected bureaucrats and police to enforce them
whether the majority want it or not.
As the French philosopher Rousseau (not an anarchist) once
wrote, in a democracy, people are only free at the moment
they vote, the rest of the time they are government slaves.
The politicians in office and the bureaucrats are usually
under the powerful influence of big business and often other
special interest groups. Everyone knows this. But some
people keep silent because they are getting benefits from
the powerholders. Many others keep silent because they know
that protesting does no good and they might be called
"extremists" or even "anarchists" (!) if they tell it like
it is. Some democracy!
Well, if you don't elect officials to make the decisions,
who does make them? You can't tell me that everybody can do
as he personally pleases without regard for others.
Anarchists have many ideas about how decisions would be made
in a truly voluntary and cooperative society. Most
anarchists believe that such a society must be based on
local communities small enough for people to know each
other, or people at least would share ties of family,
friendship, opinions or interests with almost everybody
else. And because this is a local community, people also
share common knowledge of their community and its
environment. They know that they will have to live with the
consequences of their decisions. Unlike politicians or
bureaucrats, who decide for other people.
Anarchists believe that decisions should always be made at
the smallest possible level. Every decision which
individuals can make for themselves, without interfering
with anybody else's decisions for themselves, they should
make for themselves. Every decision made in small groups
(such as the family, religious congregations, co-workers,
etc.) is again theirs to make as far as it doesn't interfere
with others. Decisions with significant wider impact, if
anyone is concerned about them, would go to an occasional
face-to-face community assembly.
The community assembly, however, is not a legislature. No
one is elected. Anyone may attend. People speak for
themselves. But as they speak about specific issues, they
are very aware that for them, winning is not, as it was for
football coach Vince Lombardi, "the only thing." They want
everyone to win. They value fellowship with their neighbors.
They try, first, to reduce misunderstanding and clarify the
issue. Often that's enough to produce agreement. If that's
not enough, they work for a compromise. Very often they
accomplish it. If not, the assembly may put off the issue,
if it's something that doesn't require an immediate
decision, so the entire community can reflect on and discuss
the matter prior to another meeting. If that fails, the
community will explore whether there's a way the majority
and minority can temporarily separate, each carrying out its
If people still have irreconcilable differences about the
issue, the minority has two choices. It can go along with
the majority this time, because community harmony is more
important than the issue. Maybe the majority can conciliate
the minority with a decision about something else. If all
else fails, and if the issue is so important to the
minority, it may separate to form a separate community, just
as various American states (Connecticut, Rhode Island,
Vermont, Kentucky, Maine, Utah, West Virginia, etc.) have
done. If their secession isn't an argument against statism,
then it isn't an argument against anarchy. That's not a
failure for anarchy, because the new community will recreate
anarchy. Anarchy isn't a perfect system -- it's just better
than all the others.
We can't satisfy all our needs or wants at the local level.
Maybe not all of them, but there's evidence from archaeology
of long-distance trade, over hundreds or even thousands of
miles, in anarchist, prehistoric Europe. Anarchist primitive
societies visited by anthropologists in the 20th century,
such as the San (Bushmen) hunter-gatherers and the tribal
Trobriand Islanders, conducted such trade between individual
"trade-partners." Practical anarchy has never depended on
total local self-sufficiency. But many modern anarchists
have urged that communities, and regions, should be as
self-sufficient as possible, so as not to depend on distant,
impersonal outsiders for necessities. Even with modern
technology, which was often designed specifically to enlarge
commercial markets by breaking down self-sufficiency, much
more local self-sufficiency is possible than governments and
corporations want us to know.
One definition of "anarchy" is chaos. Isn't that what
anarchy would be -- chaos?
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to call himself an
anarchist, wrote that "liberty is the mother, not the
daughter of order." Anarchist order is superior to
state-enforced order because it is not a system of coercive
laws, it is simply how communities of people who know each
other decide how to live together. Anarchist order is based
on common consent and common sense.
When was the philosophy of anarchism formulated?
Some anarchists think that anarchist ideas were expressed by
Diogenes the Cynic in ancient Greece, by Lao Tse in ancient
China, and by certain medieval mystics and also during the
17th century English Civil War. But modern anarchism began
with William Godwin's Political Justice published in England
in 1793. It was revived in France by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
in the 1840s (What Is Property?). He inspired an anarchist
movement among French workers. Max Stirner in The Ego and
His Own (1844) defined the enlightened egoism which is a
basic anarchist value. An American, Josiah Warren,
independently arrived at similar ideas at the same time and
influenced the large-scale movement at the time to found
utopian communities. Anarchist ideas were developed further
by the great Russian revolutionary Michael Bakunin and by
the respected Russian scholar Peter Kropotkin. Anarchists
hope that their ideas continue to develop in a changing world.
This revolutionary stuff sounds a lot like Communism, which
Anarchists and Marxists have been enemies since the 1860s.
Although they have sometimes cooperated against common
enemies like the Czarists during the Russian Revolution and
the Spanish Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, the
Communists have always betrayed the anarchists. From Karl
Marx to Joseph Stalin, Marxists have denounced anarchism.
Some anarchists, followers of Kropotkin, call themselves
"communists" -- not Communists. But they contrast their free
communism, arising from below -- the voluntary pooling of
land, facilities and labor in local communities where people
know each other -- to a Communism imposed by force by the
state, nationalizing land and productive facilities, denying
all local autonomy, and reducing workers to state employees.
How could the two systems be more different?
Anarchists welcomed and in fact participated in the fall of
European Communism. Some foreign anarchists had been
assisting Eastern Bloc dissidents -- as the U.S. Government
had not -- for many years. Anarchists are now active in all
the former Communist countries.
The Communist collapse certainly did discredit much of the
American left, but not the anarchists, many of whom do not
consider themselves leftists anyway. Anarchists were around
before Marxism and we are still around after it.
Don't anarchists advocate violence?
Anarchists aren't nearly as violent as Democrats,
Republicans, liberals and conservatives. Those people only
seem to be nonviolent because they use the state to do their
dirty work -- to be violent for them. But violence is
violence. Wearing a uniform or waving a flag does not change
that. The state is violent by definition. Without violence
against our anarchist ancestors -- hunter-gatherers and
farmers -- there would be no states today. Some anarchists
advocate violence -- but all states engage in violence every
Some anarchists, in the tradition of Tolstoy, are pacifist
and nonviolent on principle. A relatively small number of
anarchists believe in going on the offensive against the
state. Most anarchists believe in self-defense and would
accept some level of violence in a revolutionary situation.
The issue is not really violence vs. nonviolence. The issue
is direct action. Anarchists believe that people -- all
people -- should take their fate into their own hands,
individually or collectively, whether doing that is legal or
illegal and whether it has to involve violence or it can be
What exactly is the social structure of an anarchist society?
Most anarchists are not "exactly" sure. The world will be a
very different place after government has been abolished.
Anarchists don't usually offer blueprints, but they propose
some guiding principles. They say that mutual aid --
cooperation rather than competition -- is the soundest basis
for social life. They are individualists in the sense that
they think society exists for the benefit of the individual,
not the other way around. They favor decentralization,
meaning that the foundations of society should be local,
face-to-face communities. These communities then federate --
in relations of mutual aid -- but only to coordinate
activities which can't be carried on by local communities.
Anarchist decentralization turns the existing hierarchy
upside down. Right now, the higher the level of government,
the more power it has. Under anarchy, higher levels of
association aren't governments at all. They have no coercive
power, and the higher you go, the less responsibility is
delegated to them from below. Still, anarchists are aware of
the risk that these federations might become bureaucratic
and statist. We are utopians but we are also realists. We
will have to monitor those federations closely. As Thomas
Jefferson put it, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."
Any last words?
Winston Churchill, a deceased alcoholic English politician
and war criminal, once wrote that "democracy is the worst
system of government, except for all the others." Anarchy is
the worst system of society -- except for all the others. So
far, all civilizations (state societies) have collapsed and
have been succeeded by anarchist societies. State societies
are inherently unstable. Sooner or later, ours will also
collapse. It's not too soon to start thinking about what to
put in its place. Anarchists have been thinking about that
for over 200 years. We have a head start. We invite you to
explore our ideas -- and to join us in trying to make the
world a better place.
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Albany, NY 12203-0142 -- USA
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News & Views for Anarchists & Activists:
"Don't just question authority,
Don't forget to question me."
-- Jello Biafra