Posts Tagged ‘Anarchists’


(For the last couple of months we’ve been running the best posts from years past, posts that will be new to most of our subscribers. We’re just starting to run blasts from the past from 2014 — this is the first — and will be posting them for the next few months; we’ll intersperse them with new material.)

Anarchism: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Anarchist Cookbook front cover(from the new [2015] Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges)

by Chaz Bufe

There are many popular misconceptions about anarchism, and because of them a great many people dismiss anarchists and anarchism out of hand.

Misconceptions abound in the mass media, where the term “anarchy” is commonly used as a synonym for “chaos,” and where terrorists, no matter what their political beliefs or affiliations, are often referred to as “anarchists.” As well, when anarchism is mentioned, it’s invariably presented as merely a particularly mindless form of youthful rebellion. These misconceptions are, of course, also widespread in the general public, which by and large allows the mass media to do what passes for its thinking.

Worse, some who call themselves “anarchists” don’t even know the meaning of the term. These people fall, in general, into two classes. The first, as the great Italian anarchist Luigi Fabbri pointed out nearly a century ago in Influencias burguesas sobre el anarquismo, consists of those who are attracted to the lies in the mass media. By and large, these people are simply looking for a glamorous label for selfish, antisocial behavior. The good news is that most of them eventually mature and abandon what they consider “anarchism.” The bad news is that while they’re around they tend to give anarchism a very bad name. As Fabbri put it:

[These are] persons who are not repelled by the absurd, but who, on the contrary, engage in it. They are attracted to projects and ideas precisely because they are absurd; and so anarchism comes to be known precisely for the illogical character and ridiculousness which ignorance and bourgeois calumny have attributed to anarchist doctrines.1

The second class consists of those who equate anarchism with some pet ideology having essentially nothing to do with anarchism. In modern times, the most prominent of these mislabeled beliefs have been primitivism and amoral egoism. Again, the identification of such beliefs with anarchism tends to give anarchism a bad name, because of, on the one hand, the absurdity of primitivism and, on the other, the obvious antisocial nature of amoral egotism. To put this another way, the identification of anarchism with chaos, mindless rebellion, absurdities (such as primitivism), and antisocial attitudes and behaviors (such as amoral egoism) has three primary undesirable effects: 1) it allows people to easily dismiss anarchism and anarchists; 2) it makes it much more difficult to explain anarchism to them, because they already think that they know what it is and have rejected it; and 3) it attracts a fair number of what Fabbri calls “empty headed and frivolous types,” and occasionally outright sociopaths, whose words and actions tend to further discredit anarchism.

So, if we’re ever to get anywhere, we need to make plain what anarchism is and what it isn’t. First, let’s deal with the misconceptions.

What Anarchism Isn’t

Anarchism is not terrorism. An overwhelming majority of anarchists have always rejected terrorism, because they’ve been intelligent enough to realize that means determine ends, that terrorism is inherently vanguardist, and that even when “successful” it almost always leads to bad results. The anonymous authors of You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism put it like this:

You can’t blow up a social relationship. The total collapse of this society would provide no guarantee about what replaced it. Unless a majority of people had the ideas and organization sufficient for the creation of an alternative society, we would see the old world reassert itself because it is what people would be used to, what they believed in, what existed unchallenged in their own personalities.

Proponents of terrorism and guerrillaism are to be opposed because their actions are vanguardist and authoritarian, because their ideas, to the extent that they are substantial, are wrong or unrelated to the results of their actions (especially when they call themselves libertarians or anarchists), because their killing cannot be justified, and finally because their actions produce either repression with nothing in return, or an authoritarian regime.2

Decades of government and corporate slander cannot alter this reality: the overwhelming majority of anarchists reject terrorism for both practical and ethical reasons. In the late 1990s, Time magazine called Ted Kaczynski “the king of the anarchists”; but that doesn’t make it so. Time‘s words are just another typical, perhaps deliberately dishonest, attempt to tar all anarchists with the terrorist brush.

This is not to say that armed resistance is never appropriate. Clearly there are situations in which one has little choice, as when facing a dictatorship that suppresses civil liberties and prevents one from acting openly, which has happened repeatedly in many countries. Even then, armed resistance should be undertaken reluctantly and as a last resort, because violence is inherently undesirable due to the suffering it causes; because it provides repressive regimes excuses for further repression; because it provides them with the opportunity to commit atrocities against civilians and to blame those atrocities on their “terrorist” opponents; and because, as history has shown, the chances of success are very low.

Even though armed resistance may sometimes be called for in repressive situations, it’s a far different matter to succumb to the romance of the gun and to engage in urban guerrilla warfare in relatively open societies in which civil liberties are largely intact and in which one does not have mass popular support at the start of one’s violent campaign. Violence in such situations does little but drive the public into the “protective” arms of the government; narrow political dialogue (tending to polarize the populace into pro- and anti-guerrilla factions); turn politics into a spectator sport for the vast majority of people3; provide the government with the excuse to suppress civil liberties; and induce the onset of repressive regimes “better” able to handle the “terrorist” problem than their more tolerant predecessors. It’s also worth mentioning that the chances of success of such violent, vanguardist campaigns are microscopic. They are simply arrogant, ill-thought-out roads to disaster.4

Anarchism is not primitivism. In recent decades, groups of quasi-religious mystics have begun equating the primitivism they advocate (rejection of science, rationality, and technology—often lumped together under the blanket term, “technology”) with anarchism.5 In reality, the two have nothing to do with each other, as we’ll see when we consider what anarchism actually is—a set of philosophical/ethical precepts and organizational principles designed to maximize human freedom. For now, suffice it to say that the elimination of technology advocated by primitivist groups would inevitably entail the deaths of literally billions of human beings in a world utterly dependent upon interlocking technologies for everything from food production/delivery to communications to medical treatment. This fervently desired outcome, the elimination of technology, could only come about through means which are the absolute antithesis of anarchism: the use of coercion and violence on a mass scale, as it’s inconceivable that a majority of human beings would voluntarily give up such things as running water, sewer systems, modern medicine, electric lights, and warm houses in the winter.6

Anarchism is not chaos; Anarchism is not rejection of organization. This is another popular misconception, repeated ad nauseam by the mass media and by anarchism’s political foes. Even a brief look at the works of anarchism’s leading theoreticians and writers confirms that this belief is in error. Over and over in the writings of Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Rocker, Ward, Bookchin, et al., one finds not a rejection of organization, but rather a preoccupation with it—a preoccupation with how society should be organized in accord with the anarchist principles of individual freedom and social justice. For a century and a half now, anarchists have been arguing that coercive, hierarchical organization (as embodied in government and corporations) is not equivalent to organization per se (which they regard as necessary), and that coercive organization should be replaced by decentralized, nonhierarchical organization based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. This is hardly a rejection of organization.

Anarchism is not amoral egoism. As does any avant garde social movement, anarchism attracts more than its share of flakes, parasites, and outright sociopaths, persons simply looking for a glamorous label to cover their often-pathological selfishness, their disregard for the rights and dignity of others, and their pathetic desire to be the center of attention. These individuals tend to give anarchism a bad name, because even though they have very little in common with actual anarchists—that is, persons concerned with ethical behavior, social justice, and the rights of both themselves and others—they’re often quite exhibitionistic, and their disreputable actions sometimes come into the public eye. To make matters worse, these exhibitionists sometimes publish their self-glorifying views and deliberately misidentify those views as “anarchist.” To cite an example, the publisher of a pretentiously (sub)titled American “anarchist” journal recently published a book by a fellow egoist consisting primarily of ad hominem attacks on actual anarchists, knowing full well that the “anarchist” author of the book is a notorious police narcotics informant who has on a number of occasions ratted out those he’s had disputes with to government agencies. This police informer’s actions—which, revealingly, he’s attempted to hide—are completely in line with his ideology of amoral egoism (“post-left anarchism”), but they have nothing to do with actual anarchism. Such amoral egoists may (mis)use the label, but they’re no more anarchists than the now-defunct German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was democratic or a republic.

The full absurdity of identifying amoral egoism—essentially “I’ll do what I damn well please and fuck everybody else”—with anarchism will become apparent in short order when we’ll consider what anarchism actually is.

Anarchism is not “Libertarianism.” Until relatively recently, the very useful term “libertarian” was used worldwide as a synonym for “anarchist.” Indeed, it was used exclusively in this sense until the 1970s when, in the United States, it was appropriated by the grossly misnamed Libertarian Party.

This party has almost nothing to do with anarchist concepts of liberty, especially the concepts of equal freedom and positive freedom—that is, access to the resources necessary to the freedom to act. (Equal freedom and positive freedom are discussed in the following section of this essay.) Instead, this “Libertarian” party concerns itself exclusively with the negative freedoms, pretending that liberty exists only in the negative sense, while it simultaneously revels in the denial of equal positive freedom to the vast majority of the world’s people.

These “Libertarians” not only glorify capitalism, the mechanism that denies both equal freedom and positive freedom to the vast majority, but they also wish to retain the coercive apparatus of the state while eliminating its social welfare functions—hence widening the rift between rich and poor, and increasing the freedom of the rich by diminishing that of the poor (while keeping the boot of the state firmly on their necks). Thus, in the United States, the once exceedingly useful term “libertarian” has been hijacked by egotists who are in fact enemies of liberty in the full sense of the word, and who have very little in common with anarchists.

This is what anarchism isn’t.

What Anarchism Is

In its narrowest sense, anarchism is simply the rejection of the state, the rejection of coercive government. Under this extremely narrow definition, even such apparent absurdities as “anarcho-capitalism” and religious anarchism are possible.7

But most anarchists use the term “anarchism” in a much broader sense, defining it as the rejection of coercion and domination in all forms. So, most anarchists reject not only coercive government, but also religion and capitalism, which they see as other forms of the twin evils, domination and coercion. They reject religion because they see it as the ultimate form of domination, in which a supposedly all-powerful god hands down “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” to its “flock.” They likewise reject capitalism because it’s designed to produce rich and poor and because it’s designed to produce a system of domination in which some give orders and others have little choice but to take them. For similar reasons, on a personal level almost all anarchists reject sexism, racism, and homophobia—all of which produce artificial inequality, and thus domination.

To put this another way, anarchists believe in freedom in both its negative and positive senses. In this country, freedom is routinely presented only in its negative sense, that of being free from restraint. Hence most people equate freedom only with such things as freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of (or from) religion. But there’s also a positive aspect of freedom, an aspect which anarchists almost alone insist on.8

That positive aspect is what Emma Goldman called “the freedom to.” And that freedom, the freedom of action, the freedom to enjoy or use, is highly dependent upon access to the world’s resources. Because of this the rich are in a very real sense free to a much greater degree than the rest of us. To cite an example in the area of free speech, Bill Gates could easily buy dozens of daily newspapers or television stations to propagate his views and influence public opinion. How many working people could do the same? How many working people could afford to buy a single daily newspaper or a single television station? The answer is obvious. Working people cannot do such things; instead, we’re reduced to producing ‘zines with a readership of a few hundred persons or putting up pages on the Internet in our relatively few hours of free time.

Examples of the greater freedom of the rich abound in daily life. To put this in general terms, because they do not have to work, the rich not only have far more money (that is, access to resources) but also far more time to pursue their interests, pleasures, and desires than do the rest of us. To cite a concrete example, the rich are free to send their children to the best colleges employing the best instructors, which the rest of us simply can’t afford to do; if we can afford college at all, we make do with community and state colleges employing slave-labor “adjunct faculty” and overworked, underpaid graduate students. Once in college, the children of the rich are entirely free to pursue their studies, while most other students must work at least part time to support themselves, which deprives them of many hours which could be devoted to study. If you think about it, you can easily find additional examples of the greater freedom of the rich in the areas of medical care, housing, nutrition, travel, etc., etc.—in fact, in virtually every area of life.

This greater freedom of action for the rich comes at the expense of everyone else, through the diminishment of everyone else’s freedom of action. There is no way around this, given that freedom of action is to a great extent determined by access to finite resources. Anatole France well illustrated the differences between the restrictions placed upon the rich and the poor when he wrote, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Because the primary goal of anarchism is the greatest possible amount of freedom for all, anarchists insist on equal freedom in both its negative and positive aspects—that, in the negative sense, individuals be free to do whatever they wish as long as they do not harm or directly intrude upon others; and, in the positive sense, that all individuals have equal freedom to act, that they have equal access to the world’s resources.

Anarchists recognize that absolute freedom is an impossibility, that amoral egoism ignoring the rights of others would quickly devolve into a war of all against all. What we argue for is that everyone have equal freedom from restraint (limited only by respect for the rights of others) and that everyone have as nearly as possible equal access to resources, thus ensuring equal (or near-equal) freedom to act.

This is anarchism in its theoretical sense.

In Spain, Cuba, and a few other countries there have been serious attempts to make this theory reality through the movement known as anarcho-syndicalism. The primary purpose of anarcho-syndicalism is the replacement of coercive government by voluntary cooperation in the form of worker-controlled unions coordinating the entire economy. This would not only eliminate the primary restraint on the negative freedoms (government), but would also be a huge step toward achieving positive freedom. The nearest this vision came to fruition was in the Spanish Revolution, 1936–1939, when huge areas of Spain, including its most heavily industrialized region, came under the control of the anarcho-syndicalist Confederación Nacional del Trabajo. George Orwell describes this achievement in Homage to Catalonia:

The anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was in full swing. . . . the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the anarchists; . . . Every shop and café had an inscription saying it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-workers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. . . . The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. . . . All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

This is anarchism. And Orwell was right—it is worth fighting for.9
1. Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism, by Luigi Fabbri. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2001, p. 16.

2. You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1998, p. 20.

3. It may be that now due to apathy, but in violent/repressive situations other options are cut off for almost everyone not directly involved in armed resistance.

4. For further discussion of this matter, see You Can’t Blow Up a Social Relationship: The Anarchist Case Against Terrorism and Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism.

5. Ted Kaczynski is in some ways quite typical of this breed of romantic. He differs from most of them in that he acted on his beliefs (albeit in a cowardly, violent manner) and that he actually lived a relatively primitive existence in the backwoods of Montana—unlike most of his co-religionists, who live comfortably in urban areas and employ the technologies they profess to loathe.

6. For further discussion of this topic, see Anarchism vs. Primitivism, by Brian Oliver Sheppard. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 2003. See also the “Primitive Thought” appendix to Listen Anarchist!, by Chaz Bufe. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, 1998.

7. Indeed, there have been a fairly large number of admirable religious anarchists, individuals such as Leo Tolstoy and Dorothy Day (and the members of her Catholic Worker groups, such as Ammon Hennacy), though to most anarchists the advocacy of freedom on Earth while bowing to a heavenly tyrant (no matter how imaginary) seems an insupportable contradiction.

To the best of my knowledge there have been no such shining examples of anarcho-capitalists other than Karl Hess.

8. To be fair, marxists also tend to emphasize positive freedom, but for the most part they’re also curiously insensitive, and often downright hostile, to “negative” freedom—the freedom from restraint (especially when they have the guns and goons to do the restraining).

9. Of course, this discussion of anarchism is necessarily schematic, given that this pamphlet is intended as an introductory 10-minute read. For elaboration upon these themes, see Anarchism and Anarcho-syndicalism, by Rudolf Rocker; What Is Communist Anarchism?, by Alexander Berkman (republished by AK Press as What Is Anarchism?); Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, by Peter Kropotkin; and Anarchy in Action, by Colin Ward.


Fidel Castro

 

by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

It’s time to speak ill of the dead.  It’s been time for nearly a century. Since 1918, the left in both the U.S. and Europe has had a dictator-worship problem. First it was Lenin; then it was (yes) Stalin; then Mao; most recently the dictator of choice has been Fidel Castro.

To illustrate the depth and nature of this problem, let me recount an incident from Cuba in the 1960s. In the 1970s, a maoist friend told me about his experiences there as part of a Venceremos Brigade a decade earlier. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that the reaction of his fellow brigadistas was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert.

Anarcho-Syndicalist ReviewSince then, the American left in large part has continued to idolize Castro and his Stalin-admirer cohort, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, overlooking their  crimes. We’ll get to those crimes shortly, but let’s first speak of Castro’s, and his “revolution’s,” achievements. During his half-century reign, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party achieved the following:

  • The literacy rate in Cuba in Cuba went from approximately 70% (figures vary) in 1959 to an estimated 96% today, thanks to the Cuban government’s literacy campaigns and universal education for those aged 6 to 16.
  • Cuba has universal, free medical care. One example of its success is that infant mortality in Cuba fell from 37.3 per 1,000 live births in 1959 to 4.3 per thousand today. (In contrast, the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is 5.8 per 1,000 live births today.)
  • Higher education in Cuba is free for most Cubans.
  • There is remarkably little street crime in Cuba.
  • Every Cuban adult is guaranteed a low paying job, with pay averaging about $20 a month.
  • The Castro regime did show that a Latin American regime can defy the United States government (and the corporations it serves) and survive.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Well, consider this:

  • Freedom of speech does not exist in Cuba, nor do the other freedoms listed in the U.S. Bill of Rights. Since its inception, the “revolutionary” Castro regime has jailed opponents for exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly. Human Rights Watch notes: “Many of the abusive tactics developed during his [Fidel Castro’s] time in power – including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation – are still used by the Cuban government.”
  • All media outlets (newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio stations, television stations) are controlled by the Castro regime, and access to the Internet is tightly restricted.
  • Cuba is a one-party state.
  • In its first four-plus decades in power (ending in 2003), the Castro regime executed hundreds if not thousands of its political opponents. Amnesty International estimates that that regime executed 216 political opponents between 1959 and 1987. Other estimates run up well into the thousands.
  • The Cuban government maintains a surveillance network in every neighborhood in Cuba, the so-called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs — more accurately, Committees for the Defense of the Regime), which not only spy upon residents, but have considerable control over their lives. As an example, The CDRs can ban political dissidents from even applying to institutions of higher learning.
  • One of the first things the Castro regime did when it took power was to destroy independent unions, either jailing or driving into exile unionists who opposed its takeover. For over half a century, all unions in Cuba have been controlled by the government. (See Cuban Anarchism: The History of a Movement, by Frank Fernández. Full disclosure: I translated and edited the book.)
  • There is no workers’ control, no workplace democracy in Cuba. All workplaces are tightly controlled by government apparatchiks.
  • The Cuban government denies its citizens the right to travel, the right to emigrate. Since 1959, over 1.5 million Cubans have fled the country (current population 11 to 12 million). At least hundreds of thousands fled on rickety boats and rafts, and at absolute minimum thousands of men, women, and children died in the crossing. The actual figure is likely well up into the tens of thousands. No one really knows.

Since Castro’s death last week, the American left has, by and large, continued to sing Fidel Castro’s praises. To cite but one example, a few days ago Amy Goodman, on her generally excellent “Democracy Now” broadcast, devoted a full hour (bar the first few minutes devoted to news) to Castro. There were a few seconds (considerably under a minute) near the start devoted  to generalized mention of the repressive nature of the regime, but there was no mention whatsoever in the rest of the hour of any of the crimes listed above. It was largely a love letter to Castro.

One might mention that many antiauthoritarian Latin American leftists and anarchists deeply resent the largely uncritical support given Castro (and until his death Hugo Chávez in Venezuela) by the American left. They see it as a betrayal of principles — and themselves — and consider it utterly hypocritical, especially when coming from those who loudly proclaim their allegiance to human freedom, human rights — in the United States, but not Cuba (or Venezuela). They believe that the typical leftist refrain, “Well, we wouldn’t want that repressive system here, but the Cuban people are better off for it,” is grossly patronizing to those who are the victims of repression and those who struggle against it.

They have a point. If you believe in human freedom, in civil liberties, you believe in them everywhere, and you support all those struggling against repression. You’re either for freedom of speech or against it. You don’t make excuses for repressive regimes because you know “what’s best” for the people in those countries, because you know better than the Cubans (or Venezuelans) struggling against repression. If you make excuses for authoritarian regimes, if you don’t stand against repression everywhere, please don’t pretend that you have principles, please don’t pretend that you’re anything but a political apologist, a political hack.

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for free health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship, and continue to sing Fidel Castro’s praises.