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Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society

The Relevance Of Anarchism To Modern Society

by Sam Dolgoff

Bourgeois Neo-Anarchism

Relevance of Anarchism to Modern Society

Meaningful discussion about the relevance of anarchist ideas to modern industrialized societies must first, for the sake of clarity, outline the dif- ference between today’s “neo-anarchism” and the classical anarchism of Proudhon, Kroptkin, Malatesta and their successors. With rare exceptions one is stuck by the mediocre and superficial character of the ideas advanced by modern writers on anarchism. Instead of presenting fresh insights, there is the repetition of utopisitic ideas which the anarchist movement had long since outgrown and rejected as totally irrelevant to the problems of our increas- ingly complex society.

Many of the ideas which the noted anarchist writer Luigi Fabbri a half century ago labelled “Bourgeois Influence in Anarchism” are again in circulation.

[1] For example, there is Kingsley Widmer’s article, “Anarchism Revived -Right, Left and All Around.”

Like similar bourgeois movements in the past, Widmer correctly points out that:

“…Anarchism’s contemporary revival…mostly comes from the dissident middle class intellectuals, students and other marginal groups who base themselves on individualist, utopian and other non-working class aspects of anarchism…”

[2] Other typical bougeois anarchist characteristics are:

ESCAPISM the hope that the establishment will be gradually undermined if enough people ‘cop-out’ of the system and “live like anarchsts in communes and other life-style institutions…”

NECHAYEVISM romantic glorification of conspiracy, ruthlessness, and violence in the amoral tradition of Nechayev. BOHEMIANISM total irresponsibility; exclusive preoccupation with one’s picturesque ‘life-style’; exhibitionism; rejection of any form of organization or self-discipline.

ANTI-SOCIAL INDIVIDUALSIM the urge to “idealize” the most anti-social forms of individual forms of individual rebellion.” (Luigi Fabbri) “…intolerance of oppression [writes Malatesta], the desire to be free and develop one personality to its full limits, is not enough to make one an anarchist. That aspiration towards unlimited freedom, if not tempered by a love for mankind and by the desire that all should enjoy equal freedom, may well create rebels who…soon become exploiters and tyrants…” [3]

Still other neo-anarchist are obsessed with “action for the sake of action.” One of the foremost historians of Italian anarchism, Pier Carlo Masini, notes that for them ‘spontaneity’ is the panacea that will automatically solve all problems. No theiretical or practical preparation is needed. In the ‘revolution’ that is ‘just around the corner’ the fundamental differences between libertarians and our mortal enemies, authoritarian groups like the Marxist-Leinists, will miraculously vanish. “

Paradoxically enough [observes Masini], the really modern anarchists are those with white hair, those who guided by the teachings of Bakunin and Malatesta, who in Italy and in Spain (as well as in Russia) had learned from bitter personal participation how serious matter a revolution can be…[4]

It is not our intention to belittle the many fine things the scholars do say, nor to downgrade the magnificent struggles of our young rebbles against was, rascism and the false values of that vast crime “The Establishment” -struggles which sparked the revival of the long dormant radical movement. But they stress the negative aspects and ignore or misinterpret the constructive princples of anarchism. Bakunin and the classical anarchists always emphasized the necessity for constructive thinking and action

The 1848 revolutionary movement “was rich in instincts and negative theoretical ideas which gave it full justification for its fight against privilege, but it lacked completely any positive and practical ideas which would have been needed to enable it to erect a new system upon the ruins of the old bourgeois setup…[5]

Lacking such solid foundations, such movements must eventually disintegrate.

Distorting Anarchist Ideas

Some works on anarchism, like George Woodcock’s “Anarchism” and the two books by Horowitz and Joll both titled “The Anarchists” -perpetuate the myth that the anarchist are living antiques, visionaries yearning to return to an idyllic past. According to Woodcock, “…the historical anarchist movement that sprang from Bakunin and his followers is dead…” The cardinal principles of classical anarchism: economic and political decentralization of power, individual and local autonomy, self-mangaement of industry (‘workers control’) and federalism are obsolete forms of organization (running counter) to the world-wide trend toward political and economic centralization….The real social revolution of the modern age is in fact the process of centralization toward which every development of scientific and technological progress has contributed… .the anarchist movement failed to present an alternative to the state or the capitalist economy. [6]

It is hard to understand how scholars even slightly acquainted with the vast libertarian literature on social reconstruction come to such absurd conclusions!! A notable exception is the French sociologist-historian Daniel Guerin whose excellent little book “L’anarchisme” has been translated into English with an introduction by Noam Chomsky (Monthly Review Press, N.Y.). Guerin concentrates on the constructive aspects of anarchism. While not without its faults (he underestimates the importance of Kropotkin’s ideas and exagerates Stirner’s), it is still the best short introduction to the subject.

Guerin effectively refutes the arguements of recent historians, paricularly Jean Maitron, Woodcock and Joll concluding that their …image of anarchism is not true. Constructive acarchism which found its most accomplished expression in the writings of Bakunin, relies on organization, on self-discipline, onintegration, on a centralization which is not coercive, but federalist. It relates to large scale industry, to mod ern technology, to the modern proletariat, to genuine internationalism… In themodern world the material, intellectual and moral interests have created between all parts of a nation and even different nations, a real and solid unity, and this unity will survive all states…[7]

To assess the extent to which classical anarchism is applicable to modern societies it is first necessary to summarize briefly its leading constructive tenets.

Complex Societies Necessitiate Anarchism

It is a fallacy to assume that anarchists ignore the complexity of social life. On the contrary, the classical anarchists have always rejected the kind of “simplicity” which camouflages regimentation in favor of the natural complexity which reflects the many faceted richness and diversity of social and individual life. The cybernetic mathematician John B. McEwan, writing on the relevance of anarchism to cybernetics explains:

Libertarian socialists, synonym for non-indvidualist anarchism, especially Kropotkin and Landauer, showed an early grasp of the complex network of changing relationships, involving many structures of correlated activity and mutual aid, independent of authoritarian coercion. It was against this background that they developed their theories of social organization….[8]

One of Proudhon’s greatest contributions to anarchist theory and socialism in general was the idea that the very complexity of social life demanded the decentralization and autonomy of communities. Proudhon maintained that

“… through the complexity of interests and the progress of ideas, society is forced to abjure the state…beneath the apparatus of government, under the shadow of its political institutions, society was slowly and silently producing its organization, make for itself a new order which expressed its vitality and autonomy…” [9]

Like his predecessors, Proudhon and Bakunin, Kropotkin elaborated the idea that the very complexity of social life demanded the decentralization and self-management of industry by the workers. From his studies of economic life in England and Scotland he concluded that:

…production and exchange represented an undertaking so complicated that no government (without establishing a cumbersome, inefficient, bureaucratic dictatorship) would be able to organize production if the workers themselves, through their unions, did not do it in each branch of industry; for, in all production there arises daily thousands of difficulties that…no government can hope to foresee…. Only the efforts of thousands of intelligences working on problems can cooperate in the developement of the new social system and find solutions for the thousands of local needs….[10]

Decentralization and autonomy does not mean the breakup of society into small, isolated, economically self-sufficient groups, which is neither possible nor desirable. The Spanish anarchist, Diego Abad de Santillan, Ministry of the Economy in Catalonia in the early period of the Spanish Civil War (Dec. 1936), reminded some of his comrads:

….Once and for all we must realize that we are no longer…in a little utopian world…, we cannot realize our economic revolution in a local sense; for economy on a localist basis can only cause collective privation…, economy is today a vast organism and all isolation must prove detrimental…We must work with a social critierion, considering the interests of the whole country and if possible the whole world…”[11]

A balance must be achieved between the suffocating tyranny of unbridled authority and the kind of “autonomy” that leads to petty local patriotism, separation of little grouplets, and the fragmentation of society. Libertarian organization must reflect the complexity of societal relationships and promote solidarity on the widest possible scale. It can be defined as federalism: coordination through free agreement -locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. A vast coordinated network of voluntary alliances embracing the totality of social life, in which all the groups and associations reap the benefits of unity while still exercising autonomy within their own spheres and expanding the range of their freedom. Anarchist organizational principles are not separate entities. Autonomy is impossible without decentralization, and decentralization is impossible without federalism.

The increasing complexity of society is making anarchism MORE and NOT LESS relevant to modern life. It is precisely this complexity and diversity, above all their overriding concern for freedom and human values that led the anarchist thinkers to base their ideas on the principles of diffusion of power, self-management and federalism. The greatest attribute of the free society is that it is self-regulating and “bears within itself the seeds of its own regeneration” (Buber) The self-governing associations will be flexible enough to adjust their differences, correct and learn from their mistakes, experiment with new, creative forms of social living and thereby achieve genuine harmony on a higher humanistic plane. Errors and conflicts confined to the limited jurisdiction of special purpose groups, may do limited damage. But miscalculations and criminal decisions made by the state and other autocratically centralized organizations affecting whole nations, and even the whole world, can have the most disasterous consequences.

Society without order (as the word “society” implies) is inconceivable. But the organization of order is not the exclusive monopoly of the State. For, if the State authority is the sole guarantee of order, who will watch the watchmen? Federalism is also a form of order, which preceeded the establishment of the State. But it is order which gurantees the freedom and independence of the individuals and associations who freely and spontaneously constitute the federations. Federalism is not like the State, born of the will to power, but is recognition of the ineluctable interdependence of mankind. Federalism springs from the will to harmony and solidarity.

Modern Industry Better Organized Anarchistically

Bourgeois economists, sociologists and administrators like Peter Druker, Gunnar Myrdal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Bell, etc., now favor a large measure of decentralization not because they suddenly became anarchists, but primarily because technology has rendered anarchistic forms of organization “operational necessities”. But the bourgeois reformers have yet to learn that as long as these organizational forms are tied to state or capitalism, which connotes the monopoly of political and economic power, decentralization will remain a fraud -a more efficient device to enlist the cooperation of the masses in their own enslavement. To illustrate how their ideas inadvertently demonstrate the practicality of anarchist organization and how they contradict themselves, we cite the “free enterpriser” Drucker and the “welfare statist” Myrdal. In the chapter titled “The Sickness of Government”, Drucker writes:

…Disenchantment with government cuts across national boundaries and ideological lines…government itself has become one of the vested interests…the moment government undertakes anything it becomes entreched and permanent…the unproductive becomes built into the political process itself…social theory to be meaningful at all, must start with the reality of pluralism of institutions, a galaxy of suns rather than one big center surrounded by moons that shine only by reflected light…a society of institutional diversity and diffusion of power…in a pluralist society of organizations (each unit would be) limited to the specific service it renders to the member of society which it meant to perform -yet, since every institution has power in its own sphere, it would be as such, affected with the public interest…such a view of organizations as being autonomous and limited are necessary both to make the organization perform and to safeguard the individual’s freedom….[12]

After demonstrating the ‘monstrosity of government, its lack of performance and its impotence,’ Drucker flatly contradicts himself and comes to the surprising conclusion that “never has strong, effective government been needed more than in this dangerous would…never more than in this pluralist society of organizations.”

Mydal convincingly demonstrates that both the Soviet and the “free world states” need decentralization for administrative efficiency in order that (political and economic life) shall not succumb to the rigidity of the central apparatus. But then he expects the paternalistic welfare state to loosen “its controls over everyday life” and gradually transfer most of its powers to “all sorts of organizations and communities controlled by the people themselves…”

No anarchist could refute Myrdal’s arguement better than he does himself: …to give up autocratic patterns, to give up administrative controls and …withdraw willingly from intervening when it is no longer necessary, are steps which do not correspond to the inner workings of a functioning bureaucracy…[13]

If these advocates of decentralization and autonomy were consistent, they would realize that the diffusion of power leads to anarchism.

“Forming the New Society Within the Shell of the Old”

(preamble of the I.W.W.)

The anarchist have always opposed the Jacobins, Blanquists, Bolsheviks and other would-be dictators, who would in Proudhon’s words

“…reconstruct society upon an imaginary plan, much like the astronomers who for respect for their calculations would make over the system of the universe…”[14]

The anarchist theoreticians limited themselves to suggest the utilization of all the useful organisms in the old society in order to reconstruct the new. They envisioned the generalization of practices and tendencies which are already in effect. The very fact that autonomy, decentralization and federalism are more practical alternatives to centralism and statism already presupposes that these vast organizational networks now performing the functions of society are prepared to replace the old bankrupt hyper-centralized administrations. That the “elements of the new society are already developing in the collaspsing bourgeois society” (Marx) is a fundamental principle shared by all tendencies in the socialist movement.

Society is a vast interlocking network of cooperative labor and all the deeply rooted institutions now functioning, will in some form continue to function for the simple reason that the very existence of manking depends upon this inner cohesion. This has never been questioned by anyone. What is needed is emancipation from authoritarian institutions OVER society and authoritarianism WITHIN the organization themselves. Above all, they must be infused with revolutionary spirit and confidence in the creative capacities of the people. Kropotkin in working out the sociology of anarchism, has opened an avenue of fruitful research which has been largely neglected by social scientists busily engaged in mapping out new area for state control.

Kropotkin based himself on the essential principle of Anarchist-Communism —abolition of the wage system and distribution of goods and services on the principle, “From each according to hos ability and to each according to his needs.” He envisaged the structure of an Anarchist-Communist society as follows:

The Anarchist writers consider that their conceptions (of Anarchist-Communism) is not a utopia. It is derived, they maintain, from an ANALYSIS OF TENDENCIES that are at work already, even though State Socialism may find temporary favor with the reformers…the anarchists build their previsions of the future upon those data which are supplied by the observations of life at the present time…the idea of independent communes for the territorial organization, and of federations of trade unions for the organizations of [people] in accordance with their different functions, gave a CONCRETE conception of a society regenerated by a social revolution. There remained only to add to these two modes of organization a third, which we saw rapidly developing during the last fifty years…..the thousands upon thousands of free combines and societies growing up everywhere for the satisfaction of all possible and imaginable needs, economic, sanitary, and educational; for mutual protection, for the propaganda of ideas, for art, for amusement, and so on…an interwoven network, composed of an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes and degrees, local, regional, national and international… (which) substitute themselves for the State and in all its functions… ALL of them covering each other, and all of them always ready to meet the needs by new organizaions and adjustments. [15]

Kropotkin’s federalism aspires to the

“…complete independence of the Communes, the Federation of Free Communes and the Social Revoltion IN THE COMMUNES, that is, THE FORMATION OF ASSOCIATED PRODUCTIVE GROUPS IN THE PLACE OF THE STATE ORGANIZATION….”(Martin Buber, “Pathways in Utopia”) The miniature municipal states, fashioned after the national States in which elected officials of political parties -lawyers, professionals, and politicians but NOT THE WORKERS, control social life will also be eliminated. For a Social Revolution that does not reach local and even neighborhood levels leads inevitably to the triumph of the counter-revolution.

For Krpotkin, the

” ‘Commune’ is no linger a territorial agglomeration; but…a synonum for the grouping of equals, knowing no borders, no walls. The social Commune…will cease to be clearly defined. Each group of the Commune will necessarily be attracted to similar groups of other Communes; they will group together, federate with each other, by bonds at least as solid as those tying them to their fellow townsmen; (they will) constitute a Commune of interests, of which members will be diseminated through a thousand cities and villages. Each individual will find satisfaction of his needs only in grouping together with other individuals have the same tastes and living in a hundred other Communes.” [16]

The following excerpt from “El Communism Libertario” gives some of Dr.Issac Puente’s ideas on the political and economic organization of society. Puente, a medical doctor, was an important anarchist thinker and activist who was imprisoned and then murdered by the fascists while fighting on the Saragossa front in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

Libertarian Communism is the organization of society without the State and without capitalist property relations. To establish Libertarian Communism it will not be necessary to invent artificial forms of organization. The new society will emerge from the “shell of the old”. The elements of the future society are already planted in the existing order. They are the syndicate (union) and the Free Commune (sometimes called the ‘free municipality’) which are old, deeply rooted, non-Statist popular institutions spontaneously organized and embracing all towns and villages in urban and in rural areas. The Free Commune is ideally suited to cope successfully with the problems of social and economic life in libertarian communities. Within the Free Commune there is also room for cooperative groups and other associations, as well as individuals to meet their own needs. (providing, of course, that they do not employ hired labor for wages.”…The terms ‘Libertarian’ and ‘Communism’ denote the fusion of two inseperable concepts, the indispensable pre-requisites for the Free Society:

Collective And Individual Liberty.

Workers Control

The anarchist’s insistance on workers’ control -the idea of self-management of industry by workers’ associations “in accordance with their differenct functions”, rest on very solid foundations. This tendency traces back to Robert Owen, the first International Workingmens’ Association, the Guild Socialist movement in England and the pre-World War I syndicalist movements. With the Russian Revolution, the trend towards workers’ control in the form of free soviets (councils) which arose spontaneously, was finally snuffed out with the Kronstadt massacre of 1921. The same tragic fate awaited the workers’ councils in the Hungarian, Polish and East German rising around 1956. {Typist’s Note: This was written before Solidarity also brough this forth in 1980.}

Among the many other attempts that were made, there is of course the clasiic example of the Spanish Revolution of 1936, with the monumental constructive achievements in the libertarian rural collectives and workers’ control of unrban industry. The prediction of “News Bulletin” of the reformist International Union of Food and Allied Workers Association (July 1964) that “…the demand of workers’ control may well become the common gound for advanced sectors in the labor movement both “east” and “west”…” is now a fact.

Although the purged Bolshevik “left oppositionist”, Victor Serge, refers to the economic crisis that gripped Russia during the early years of the revolution, his remarks are, in general, still pertinent and incidentally illustrate Kropotkin’s theme:

…certain industries could have been revived [and] an enormous degree of recovery achieved by appealing to the initiative of groups of producers and consumers, freeing the state strangled cooperatives and inviting the various associations to take over management of different branches of economic activity…I was arguing for a Communism of Associations -in contrast to Communism of the State -the total plan not dictated on high by the State, but resulting from the harmonizing by congresses and special assemblies from below.[17]

Augustin Souchy, vetern Anarcho-Syndacalist activist, theoretician, onetime Secretary of the anarcho-syndaclist International Workingmens’ Association and actively involved with the Spanish National Confederation of Labor, wrote that

…during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) the Spanish workers and peasants were establishing what could be loosely called “Libertarian Syndicalist Socialism”: a system without exploitation and injustice. In this type of libertarian collectivist economy, wage slavery is replaced by the equitable and just sharing of labor. Private or State Capitalism (or State “Socialism”) is replaced by workers’ factory council, the union, the industrial association of unions up to the national federation of industrial unions. [18]

It is essentially a system of workers’ self-management at all levels.

“After the Revolution”

The anarchist thinkers were not so naive as to expect the installation of the perfect society composed of perfect individuals who would miraculously shed all their ingrained prejudices and old habits on the day after the revolution. They were primarily concerned with the immediate problems of social reconstruction that will have to be faced in any country -industrialized or not.

They are issues which no serious revolutionary has the right to ignore. It was for this reason that the anarchists tried to work out measures to meet the pressing problems most likely to emerge during what Malatesta called “the period of reorganization and transition.” We summarize Malatesta’s descussion of some of the more important questions. [19]

Crucial problems cannot be avoided by postphoning them to the distant future -perhaps a century or more -when anarchism will have been fully realized and the masses will have finally become convinced and dedicated anarchist-communists. We anarchists must have our own solutions if we are not to be relegated to the role of useless and impotent grumblers, while the more realistic and unscrupulous authoritarians seize power. Anarchy or no anarchy, the people must eat and be provided with the necessities of life. The cities must be provisioned and vital services cannot be disrupted. Even if poorly served, the people in their own interests would not allow us or anyone alse to disrupt these services unless and until they are reorganized in a better way; and this cannot be achieved in a day.

The organization of the anarchist-communist society on a large scale can only be achieved gradually as material conditions permit, and as the masses convince themselves of the benefits to be gained and as they gradually become psychologically accustomed to radical alterations in their way of life. Since free and voluntary communism (Malatesta’s synonym for anarchism) cannot be imposed, Malatesta stressed the necessity for the coexistence of various economic forms, collectivist, mutualist, individualist -on the condition that there will be no exploitation of others. Malatesta was confident that the convincing example of successful libertarian collective will attract others into the orbit of the collectivity…for my part I do not believe that there is “one” solution to the social problem, but a thousand different and changing solutions, in the same way as social existence is different in time and space…[20]

“Pure Anarchism Is A Fiction”

Aside from the “individualists” (a very ambiguous term) none of the anarchist thinkers were “pure” anarchists. The typical “pure” anarchist grouping, explains Geirge Woodcock, “is the loose and flexible affinity group” which needs no formal organization and carries on anarchist propaganda through an “invisible network of personal contacts and intellectual influences.” Woodcock argues that “pure” anarchism is incompatible with mass movements like anarchosyndicalism because they need stable organizations precisely because it moves in a world that is only partly governed by anarchist ideals…and make compromises with day-today situations…[It} has to maintain the allegiance of masses of [workers] who are only remotely conscious of the final aim of anarchism. [21]

If these statements are true, then “pure” anarchism is a pipe dream. First, because there will never be a time when everybody will be a “pure” anarchist, and humanisty will forever have to make “compromises with the day-to-day situation.” Second, because the intricate economic and social operations of an interdependent world cannot be carried on without these “stable organizations,” even if every inhabitant were a convinced anarchist, “pure” anarchism would still be impossible for technical and functional reasons alone. This is not to say that anarchism excludes affinity groups. Anarchism envisions a flexible, pluralist society where all the needs of mankind would be supplied by an infinite variety of voluntary associations. The world is honeycombed with affinity groups from chess clubs to anarchist propaganda groups. They are formed, dissolved and reconstituted according to the fluctuating whims and fancies of the individuals adherents. It is precisely because they “reflect individual preferences” that such groups are the lifeblood of the free society.

Bu anarchist have also insisted that since the necessities of life and vital services must be supplied without fail and cannot be left to the whims of individuals, they are Social Obligations which every able bodied individual is honor-bound to fulfill, if he expects to enjoy the benefits of collective labor. The large scale organizations, anarchistically organized, are NOT a DEVIATION. They are THE VERY ESSENCE OF ANARCHISM AS A VIABLE SOCIAL ORDER.

There is no


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