, January 22, 2009
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Anarchism: a muddy concept
This book is an attempt at defining anarchism and describing a few attempts at anarchist organization of production in the first half of the 20th century. The principal founding theorists of anarchism are the Frenchman Proudhon and the Russian Bakunin, both of whom lived in the mid-19th century. As with most ideologies, the fine points of anarchism have been fiercely debated, however, there is general agreement that anarchism is at heart a philosophy that emphasizes the freedom of the individual to “bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” It is decidedly not the individualism of a capitalistic, free-market system. Individuals are to be empowered through self-directed collectives of worker organizations or communes.
Both private property and the State are anathema to anarchists because of the prerogatives of coercion associated with those entities and concepts. Even in so-called social-democracies, periodic voting is seen as no more than a cover for their fundamentally authoritarian nature. Anarchists regard themselves as libertarian socialists, without state ownership of productive property. That is in contrast to those socialists who see a role for the state, such as occurred with the Russian revolution of 1917. Anarchists view this situation as an example of authoritarian socialism.
Anarchists hardly advocate disorganization, or at worst, a chaotic society. However, they are extremely fuzzy when it comes down to the specific organization of a complex society on anarchist terms, or on the capacity of the average man to actually practice self-governance in concert with his fellow man. They are loath to suggest that a vanguard of intellectual elites is necessary to bring about an anarchist model of society. Furthermore, in the absence of the state, anarchists are faced with creating society-wide bodies for necessary coordination with all the attendant problems of authority. The concept of federalism supposedly applies. Interestingly, they claim that secession from a federation is permitted, but no entity would want to. Seems like they dance around the practicalities of authority.
Given its origins in the 19th century, anarchism seems to assume that most individuals are part of large manufacturing concerns with a high degree of geographical coherence, such as the steel-producing towns of Pennsylvania of the early 20th century where everyone was connected with one large mill. In that case, the organization of people in worker collectives, unions, or communes is perhaps not a major issue. This book makes no attempt at fitting anarchism in with a complex society of diverse enterprises with employees scattered over huge metropolitan areas.
It’s quite easy to sympathize with the anarchist sentiment of not wanting to be subject to the tyrannies of the powerful, small or large, in workplaces or by government. But this book is very short on the practicalities of anarchism. Its assessments of very short-lived attempts at anarchism, whether it be in Spain, Italy, Russia, etc are rather more optimistic than realistic. The book is dated, having been written over forty years ago. The Russian, as well as the Yugoslavian, socialist experiment has long since fallen by the wayside. Furthermore, the book, though not long, is not well organized, is repetitious, and lacks coherency. Perhaps that simply reflects the muddiness of anarchism. The serious student of anarchism will want to consult additional sources.