Political Anarchism in the 21st Century

In a sense, this is the third of a trilogy of articles that posits the Isocratic viewpoint with social democracy and the dictatorial left. In the former, it was noted that there is a terrible international malaise in the official parties of Socialist International, whilst gains by left-wing forces are usually of new, independent, left-papers which were influenced by libertarian and environmentalist policies. The more that social democracy jettisoned its socialist history and did not advance beyond modest popular liberalism, the further it would lose ground. As an alternative, a strong libertarian socialism was proposed to act as a counter - and as an advance - to mainstream liberal capitalism. In the latter article, a strong opposition was presented to "left-wing fascism", which, apart from the primary issue of the horrendous abuse of human rights, perpetuates the myth of the conservatives that socialism is the antithesis of freedom, when in reality socialism ought to be the logical extension of freedom and democracy, rather than a replacement. Again, the option of libertarian socialism was proposed as the preferred alternative.

For those with some background in political theory this surely sounds like an advocacy of anarchism, which is correctly defined by Peter Marshall [1]": "Political theorists usually classify anarchism as an ideology of the extreme Left. In fact, it combines ideas and values from both liberalism and socialism and may be considered a creative synthesis of the two great currents of thought", and provides more than sufficient examples from historic anarchist leaders to justify this claim. Wahl and Jun also concur with this approach, "anarchism combines a socialist critique of liberalism and a liberal critique of socialism" [2], as does David Goodway, "understanding anarchism is to recognize its thoroughly socialist critique of capitalism, while emphasizing that this has been combined with a liberal critique of socialism" [3]. If nothing else, these contemporary writers point out very clearly how absolutely distant the right-wing so-called "anarcho-capitalist" libertarianism is from genuine anarchist and libertarian thought, itself the result of a very particular history in the United States of America, not replicated elsewhere in the world.

The concern also is raised in the distinction between individual and social anarchism. In general, the former represents those individual, egoist, doctrines of anarchism, which Max Stirner, Benjamin Tucker, Murray Rothbard, and contemporaries such as Hakim Bey, most certainly be cited as the most influential. The social anarchist movement in contrast has concentrated on coordinated action in the public sphere with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Rudolf Rocker, and contempories such as Giovanni Baldelli, Michael Albert and Murray Bookchin being notable figures. Of particular import is the latter's essay, "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm" [4], illustrating a main ideological divide, although any suggestion that there is a "tension between two basically contradictory tendencies: a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy and a collectivist commitment to social freedom", is clearly erroneous as both are are resolved through contextual pragmatics. Even liberalism has explored this issue in depth with recognition of common goods, self-regarding and other-regarding acts, and the discourse ethics in consensus formation [5].

The more serious issue raised by Bookchin and other social anarchists is the concern that individual anarchism can either tend towards an armchair "lifestyle anarchism" or, conversely, turns into illegalism. In the former case, the anarchist perspective occurs within the safety one's own home, and among immediate associates. It is the sort of "private freedom", which Hannah Arendt warned against [6] as being trivial and vacuous, the "freedom" of owning (or being owned by) a cat, or the happiness of tending to a flower-pot; in short - "small things", freedom within the space of four walls or, in the case of anarcho-primitivists, not even that. Some anarchists within an individualistic perspective recognise these limitations (if nothing else, they are egoists with a sense of grandeur) and seek to go beyond the anarchy of the household. But because they have already explicitly rejected social action, there is a tendency towards the petty crimes of individual reclamation and, in some cases, nihilistic illegalism (e.g., anarchist bombers and assassins).

Against these truncuated "post-left" anarchists, the social anarchists emphasise activity through mutual cooperatives, collectives, or industrial union activity. It must be emphasised that most social anarchists are also individual anarchists, that is, they are anarchists in their private lives and extend this ideology into organised and involved public action. The individual anarchists who stop at the lifestyle level often advocacy amoral sensualism; the social anarchists have a high level of moral responsibility. Their social activity can include involvement in worker's co-operatives, such as the famous case of Les Industries de Palente, the Mondragon Corporation, the John Lewis Partnership, and the Indian Coffee House restaurant chain, through class-based industrial unionism, such as the Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, the Unione Sindacale Italiana, the Industrial Workers of the World [7], and a wide-variety of activist organisations, such as Food Not Bombs, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Critical Mass, the British Movement Against the Monarchy, and Indymedia (Independent Media Center).

Whilst it should be evident by this stage that there is a strong preference for concrete advances of social anarchism over the hedonistic lifestyle anarchism, an isocratic viewpoint goes a step further. Even with an explicit rejection of the retreatism and moral nihilism of hedonsitic lifestyle anarchism, social anarchism is far from sufficient for direct political change. There is, of course, very good reasons why social anarchists strongly prefer extra-parliamentary activity to the "parliamentary cretinism" [8] and its obsession with achieving social change through majority representation in the relevant chamber. Whilst coined in a period well before democratic suffrage independent of income or sex, the concern is of course legitimate, as is the issue of 'moderation theory', where radicals are co-opted into the mainstream process and alter their policies as a result [9].

Nevertheless, the advances in civil liberties and democratic rights are very real, and they have been assisted by those involved in the mainstream political process, whether principled advocates, or those particularly sensitive to extra-parliamentary protests. In the twenty-first century, political absenteeism weakens, rather than strengthens those genuinely interested in achieving the rights of personal freedom and socialist democracy. It is absolutely certain that members of the ruling classes are utterly thrilled to hear that an organised group of competent radical political activists are not going to participate in any way in the democratic electoral process in any way. This is obviously not to suggest that electoral politics should replace activist politics, but rather that it must not be ignored either. Electoral politics, apart from being the time where an opportunity presents itself to present libertarian socialist ideas, can also be a vehicle for revolutionary reformism.

It is not as if social anarchists have not participated in the political process in the past, and famously remembered by their membership in the new Czechoslovak Republic, holding ministerial positions and in the Generalitat of Catalonia, also in the Ministerial level. They did so in full recognition of the limitations and trappings of parliamentary participation ("friends are too warm, the whiskey too strong, and the seats too soft" [10]). Whilst most individual and social anarchists, with their intractable disdain for any activity in the field of parliamentary politics, will be quick to point out how such individuals did not succeed in building a new stateless society, they must surely recognise that the decision to take up such roles was done with serious consideration of the circumstances. Indeed, much of this has to do with a recognition of the distinction between government and the state. All societies have a government, but not all societies need to enforce class rule through the state.

Whilst social reform achieved through parliamentary democracy may not result in a federated political system of recallable delegates, rather than representatives, or a system where individual autonomy and mutual consent is independent of legislation, or even an economic system founded on co-operative ownership, it can - and indeed already has - contributed to these objectives, and therefore is a valuable activity itself. As such, an isocratic viewpoint argues that as much as individual anarchists must also be social anarchists, that social anarchists must also be political anarchists - and thus raise the challenge of liberty and commonwealth with a view of practical implementation in those hallowed halls themselves.

[1] Peter Marshall, Demanding The Impossible: A History of Anarchism, PM Press, 2008 [FP 1992], p639
[2] Nathan J. Jun, Shane Wahl, New Perspectives on Anarchism, Lexington, 2010, p294
[3] David Goodway, Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow, PM Press 2012 [FP 2006], p3
[4] Murray Bookchin, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, AK Press, 1995
[5] This refers to a tradition that includes John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980 FP 1869, Jurgen Habermas "Moral consciousness and communicative action", Polity Press, 1990, Issiah Berlin "Five Essays on Liberty", Oxford University Press, 2004
[6] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press, 1958
[7] Engagement in social anarchism does not, of course, automatically prevent the worst vulgarities common to immature lifestyle anarchism. The author had a recent experience with the Facebook organiser of the Melbourne IWW. In what had been previously a civil a debate over fair trade, the Melbourne IWW representative responded with: "Go fuck yourself you pompous, arrogant cunt." This behaviour contribution to a former Sec. Gen. of the IWW resigning from the organisation after decades of committed service.
[8] The phrase was coined by Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852
[9] Robert Michels, Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy, Hearst's International Library, 1915
[10] Stuart McIntyre, A Concise History of Australia, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p128

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on June 28, 2012.


Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. No anarchist should have anything to do with any system of hierarchy. They will become corrupted by any power they achieve. No anarchist should be involved in politics.

Given that the phrase "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" comes from a British Lord (the exact quote was "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely"), it seems that was more of a warning on what to do with power i.e., remove the potential for its corrupting influence.

Martin Luther King expressed it well when he said - despite the sentimentality - "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.".

It is not through avoidance of formal power that the various civil liberties were won through the ages, but rather the dedicated activity to wrest power from those who who lord it over others.

If I may refer once more to John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton, Liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end..

I think it is quite important that anarchists - and indeed socialists and liberals - take the time to consider what is the difference between governance and the state. After all, every society has a government, if only to engage in the "administration of things" to paraphrase Saint-Simon. But not every society has need of the State, that is the body of monopoly violence which enforces the "governance of people" in contradiction to their natural rights.

... a liberal-democratic system. Yes, it can work, and yes it has real, lasting power.


Cheers for the link, I too am an admirer of the achievements of a strong social-democratic system that the Scandinavian countries have been able to implement.

Though the comment at the bottom of the page by 'Upplänning' does tend to support what seems to be Lev's view that social democracy overall is insufficient:
"If the left had been willing/able during its time of greatest power really to settle acccounts with the capitalist class, the gains of Swedish society would have been rooted in much firmer soil, and the domestic impact of the great subsequent shift at the international level would have been much less. Or so I'd wager, at any rate."

A group of Australian anarchists use the law and classic union-style direct action to fight for fair wages.