Before I say a single word about anarchism, I have to say that this article by no means encompasses every single anarchist sect, tendency, or school of thought. This article is an article about anarchism (and its flaws) in general. As Engels noted about anarchists: "[they are] so unique that no two of them can agree with each other." And speaking from personal experience, I have never met two anarchists who have the same ideas.

Anarchism seems like the most radical way to reject the oppression and exploitation, which is why it appeals to many who are radicalizing, especially given the bankruptcy and ineffectiveness of the socialist left. But as this article will show, what seems like the most radical solution and a real answer to to today's problems are far from being the same thing.

the Theory

the Black BlocSo what is anarchism? According to the Anarchist FAQ, "anarchism is primarily a movement against hierarchy." What is hierarchy? "[H]ierarchy is the organisational structure that embodies authority."{1} And what is authority? The FAQ doesn't say. Presumably it means the power or ability to compel someone to do something against their will. What is the goal anarchism? The FAQ says:

     Anarchism, therefore, is a political theory 

     that aims to create a society which is without 

     political, economic or social hierarchies. 

     Anarchists maintain that anarchy, the absence 

     of rulers, is a viable form of social system 

     and so work for the maximisation of individual 

     liberty and social equality. They see the goals 

     of liberty and equality as mutually self-supporting. 

To be clear, Marxists and anarchists share the same goal: a classless, stateless society, without rulers and ruled, kings and peasants, workers and bosses. Our differences center on how and why classes (or hierarchies) arose and how and why they can be abolished in the here and now.

Socialists understand that class divisions or hierarchies arose because society could only produce a surplus, or extra beyond people's immediate needs, to free a small minority of society from working. This small group of people became the first ruling class; they were put in charge of the grain house or whatever repository of wealth; as that wealth accumulated, so did their power. At first the majority of people consented to this division because surely someone should keep track of how much grain was stored in the grainhouse, someone should be in charge of maintaining the facility, overseeing the equitable distribution of grain, and so on.

The first ruling class grew organically out of an administrative function. Eventually this ruling minority became utterly disconnected from the actual process of growing and distributing the food. The division between manual and mental labor, between thinking and doing, arose for the first time in history. Freed from lives of back-breaking toil, they were free to develop art, religion, science, math, and so on. The important thing to understand is that class divisions, and the oppression that accompanied them, arose because of changes in the material world, not because the "idea" of "authority" caught hold or because a small minority one day decided to take up arms, convinced a bunch of people to join their armies/police forces, and imposed their will on an unwilling majority.

Socialism, the democratic rule of the working class, is rooted in the development of the material world; it holds that capitalism has developed technology to the point where it can everyone can be free from spending their whole lives toiling and everyone can have food, clothes, shelter, good health care, and specialized education; socialism holds that the working class has the social power and the interest in overthrowing the capitalism.

Without the economic development that capitalism provided, there could be no socialism, there could be no classless, stateless society desired by socialists and our anarchist brethren. Anarchism's solutions, strategies, and philosophy is not rooted in the material world in the same way. It sees authority as being the problem. Anarchism is supra-historical, or outside the process of historical development. It sees no difference in principle between the authority of a union that forces or compels its members to go on strike even though they opposed strike action and the authority of the police force called in to break the strike. Both authorities confront the individual worker as an alien, coercive force.

Anarchists reject all authority. But as Engels argued:

	Have these gentlemen ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most

	authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population 

	imposes its will on the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon - 

	authoritarian means, if such there be at all; and if the victorious party does 

	not want to have fought in vain, it must maintain this rule by means of the 

	terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries.

Anarchists reject the state -- all states. This sounds good when we're talking about the capitalist state. But what about a workers' state?

Because anarchism categorically rejects all states, all authority, all leadership, it has consistently compromised with the status quo, created systems and structures at odds with its own principles, and promoted elitism.

the Practice

The shortcomings of anarchism are exposed by its practice.

Let's back track a bit and deal with the charges one by one:

ELITISM: By denouncing leadership as bad and announcing that "we have no leaders," they have not abolished leadership. Leaders will always exist because different people have different capacities, talents, ideas, abilities, and willingness to initiate struggles. The human race is not a homogenous mass that eats, thinks, experiences, and reasons the same; if it were, then it would be as homogenous as peanut butter (and be a lot less tasty). The anarchists attack leadership because they see today's leaders, George Bush, Jr., Barack Obama, as bad. That they are. But leadership in and of itself is not necessarily bad; it depends on whose leadership, and more importantly, what they are leading. The leadership of a police captain who orders his men to fire tear gas at unarmed, peaceful demonstrators is not at all the same thing as the leadership of the peaceful demonstrators who direct the crowd to stay on the march route. One is oppressive. The other is not, even if it conflicts with individuals in the crowd who might want to punch a cop in the face instead of remaining peaceful.

By proclaiming "we have no leaders", they haven't abolished leadership. Rather, they've hidden it. Instead of leaders being democratically elected and accountable for their actions to the majority, the leaders will be the ones with the biggest mouths, the most bossy personalities, or enough time on their hands to out-wait other people at meetings. This is exactly the kind of thing that happened after the December 12, 2011 port blockade organized by Occupy Oakland.

Either leadership is formal, democratic, and accountable; or leadership is informal, and therefore undemocratic and unaccountable. Or, worse yet, nothing gets done at all because everyone is "doing their own thing" since there is no "hierarchy" -- a formal, voluntary structure or set of procedures to make sure tasks are accomplished.

This elitism shows in the anarchist practice. For example, Bakunin and his followers joined the First International and formed a secret alliance within it. Instead of open and democratic procedures in the International, Bakunin argued that the "spontaneous" revolutionary action of the masses should be supplemented by the direction of invisible, self-selected revolutionaries, like "invisible pilots in the thick of the popular tempest". He wrote to his supporters, "we must steer it [the revolution] not by any open power but by the collective dictatorship of all the allies - a dictatorship without insignia, titles, or official rights, and all the stronger for having none of the paraphernalia of power."{2} For "the.... triumph of revolution over reaction, the unity of revolutionary thought and action must find an agent in the thick of popular anarchy.... That agent must be the secret universal association of international brothers."{3}

Today's Black Bloc (BB) is extremely. At protests, they engage in "direct action" -- blocking traffic, throwing bricks through Starbucks windows -- as a matter of principle, regardless of circumstances. While revolutionary socialists are not opposed to any of those things in principle, BB believe these tactics are applicable to any protest. Instead of trying to focus on getting more people (especially working people) to these protests, they instead engage in radical (and pointless, counterproductive) "direct actions" which do little to draw more people into the movement or win it more support. Tactics become a substitute for politics. Most BB don't understand (or they don't care) that working class people can't afford to be arrested or beaten and hospitalized when the police strike back in retaliation for a molotov cocktail because someone in BB had the urge to do something "radical". And when others in the movement argue against their methods, they hide behind the rhetoric of "diversity of tactics". In other words, anyone can do whatever they want at a protest! No one is accountable to the movement, no one is to be held responsible for their actions.

The elitism of today's anarchists is also apparent in their fetishization of consensus. Consensus is a decision-making process in which everyone must come to an agreement to get something done. There was a rather large core of anarchists who attended the Boston Campus Anti-War conference at the end of October 2002, who insisted on having consensus even though there were about 200 people in the room most of whom did not agree to that decision-making model. When the conference moved to elect a coordinating committee they threatened the walkout and did so after the majority decided not to reverse its decision in the face of the threat of a walkout. Modified consensus, which provides for 90% agreement to overcome blocks, is not much better because an intransigent 11% can still obstruct the process. The larger the group, the more difficult it is to reach consensus.

Consensus is an elitist and fundamentally undemocratic decision-making process. First of all, it automatically excludes anyone who doesn't have the time for 6 hour meetings (if not longer), i.e. working class people. And majority can be held hostage by an intransigent minority who can continually use blocks to stop the process.

But for Emma Goldman, who is hailed by many anarchists and non-anarchists alike for her being a "libertarian," the minority holding the majority hostage is a virture, not a vice:

	The multitude, the mass spirit, dominates everywhere, destroying quality.... 

	The worker who once took pride in the thoroughness and quality of his work, has 	

	been replaced by brainless, incompetent automatons....

	...the majority cannot reason; it has no judgment. Lacking utterly in 

	originality and moral courage, the majority has always placed its destiny in 

	the hands of others....

	I therefore believe with Emerson that "the masses are crude, lame, pernicious in 

	their demands and influence, and need not to be flattered, but to be schooled. I

	 wish not to concede anything to them, but to drill, divide, and break them up, 

	and draw individuals out of them. Masses! The calamity are the masses. I do not 

	wish any mass at all, but honest men only, lovely, sweet, accomplished women only." 

	In other words, the living, vital truth of social and economic well-being will 

	become a reality only through the zeal, courage, the non-compromising determination 

	of intelligent minorities, and not through the mass.{4}

Working class anarchists in the Spanish Revolution ANARCHIST PRACTICE CONTRADICTS ANARCHIST THEORY/VALUES: The Occupy uprising succeeded in many ways because of its embrace of anarchist values but it also developed many problems as a result. For example, at Occupy Wall Street's Liberty Plaza encampment there was an extreme reluctance to self-police out of a fear of imposing some type of authority over occupiers. The result? People guilty of assault and sexual assault stayed in the park despite repeated requests by occupiers that they leave. Refusal to "recognize" state authority also led to problems, such as refusing/failing to report rapes and sexual assaults to the New York Police Department.

Both of these problems contradict anarchist principles in that it allowed criminals to impose their will on their victims without fear of punishment, retribution, or consequences.

Even though OWS claimed it was "leaderless" it had leaders. The facilitation working group for example controlled what did and did not make it to the General Assembly's (GA) agenda. Many, many meetings at OWS -- both working groups and GAs -- had the modified consensus process manipulated and "massaged" and its own protocols violated by facilitators. Some times this was the result of inexperience but other times it was done consciously in order to get something done. The GA voted to require working groups to hand over street donations they received to the finance working group which controlled over half a million dollars in donations, so, in practice, "autonomous" working groups paid tribute to the general fund. When these groups tried to get more than $100 from finance for their various projects (they were allotted $100 a day allowance) they faced many, many difficulties because of the bureaucratic nature of the modified consensus process. Their autonomy was extremely constrained in many respects as a result and some working groups decided to hoard donations instead of contributing to the general fund.

COMPROMISING WITH THE STATUS QUO: Because of anarchists reject "the idea of a state" and "leadership", many reject politics altogether and focus on living an "anarchist" life-style. According to them, in order to have a classless, stateless, hierarchy-less society tomorrow, we have to live our lives that way today. Not only is this super-individualistic, it also means that one rejects organizing against the status quo. They confuse the ends with the means, and argue that the means must pre-figure the end.

Instead of trying to organize the working class to collectively seize power from the capitalists (as Marxists do), many try to buy food that is not from corporations, practice veganism, and so on. Others refuse to include demands of the state, corporations, landlords, or bosses because that would "legitimizing" their existence. Either way, they are compromising with the status quo; the ruling class is not trembling because people are eating vegan products or refusing to make explicit demands like higher wages, affordable housing, decent health care.

If we want a society free from hunger and oppression, we have to take the society we do have as our starting point. We can't just "skip" over reality as it stands today and pretend that by eating a vegan diet will some how overthrow the capitalist class and win workers' power.

  1. Anarchist FAQ, "What is anarchism?",
  2. Michael Bakunin, Selected Writings, Arthur Lehning, Ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1973), p. 180.
  3. Ibid, p. 172.
  4. Emma Goldman, "Minorities Versus Majorities,"
  5. Pierre Broue and Emile Temime, the Revolution & Civil War in Spain (London: Faber, 1972), p. 327.
  6. Leon Trotsky, the Spanish Revolution, 1931-1939

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