- A brief essay by British anarchist Albert Meltzer (1920–1996). I’m unsure of the date of composition, but presumably some time in the 1980s. See also : Anarchism: Arguments For and Against.
Anarchism was built up and invented by the working class to meet with specific problem[s] in working class organization and to point the way to a society free from oppression. It differed from Marxism or authoritarian socialism in that it saw that copying bourgeois forms of organization or government was a mistaken tactic; also that government could form a new tyranny. It was not generally realized at the time that there could be two forms of aspirants to tyranny–capitalists and bureaucrats could take over a new government, but prior to that the middle classes were also divided in their attitude to socialism. The middle class as defined by Marx–the profit making class–had a corollary in the mandarin class aiming at power and its class tyranny, and just as the middle class profit makers were originally divided in two (Liberal/progressives; and the Tory landlord elements gradually incorporated into the capitalist class) so the mandarins were divided between those who were successful and passed examinations to go on to power, and those who were not, and looked to the working class to provide them with support. The whole of the Marxist “intellectuals” represent this type of ‘failed mandarins’, who on the whole disdained anarchism as Utopian, and wished to show the working class how to do it. (Typical is the Red Army trained German Marxist leadership, which failed dismally even to formally resist Hitler, and went to Spain to show the ‘ignorant Spaniards’ how to fight!)
Since World War Two there has been disillusionment with the old left and some of the new left–equally failed mandarins–have seen that there is an alternative to Marxism. For them to take over the anarchist movement would be a disaster. In the main they regard themselves as the ‘unofficial anarchists’ though also proclaiming themselves part of the anarchist movement even if denying it and degrading it (e.g. George Woodcock). Such ‘failed mandarins’ are generally more honest than their Marxist counterparts who glorify the workers while pushing them out of their own movement, and taking over their history, anxious to use them but not allow them to lead. The “anarchist” type denies the working class has anything to do with its own movement, takes over the history and rewrites it as something entirely different. A very early type was Dr. Eltzbacher, actually a judge, who rewrote the theory of anarchism according to what he thought were the various ‘schools of anarchism’ something which neatly fits in with this type of ‘unofficial anarchism’.
Prior to World War Two it was almost unknown and certainly bizarre to have non-workers in the movement (unless like Kropotkin they had abandoned their class status) though there was always, it is true, the tendency for “intellectuals”–but actually failed mandarins, sometimes genuine ones–to try to write themselves into the movement. During World War Two the phenomenon of pacifism grew rapidly. In most countries pacifism had to be revolutionary. It remains in some countries a major step if one refuses to join the army, one’s whole life is changed to rebellion. In Great Britain, owing to the liberal non-conformist tradition, conscientious objection was widespread in World War One and it won the battle for recognition. So that by World War Two it entered into a dialogue with the State and formed part of the Establishment. Nothing prevented or prevents Establishment figures being pacifists. Pacifism is advocated in peacetime by judges and journalists, but even in wartime by many leading figures, who thus made pacifism into a collaborationist doctrine. The anarchist movement attracted those people who, from bourgeois or mandarin circles, did not want to join the army, but felt the nationalist urge to do so–it provided them with a moral excuse. It did not make them into anarchists or revolutionaries, they remained liberals, and one can see the liberal influence in all of ‘unofficial anarchism’. A similar thing happened with so-called individualist anarchism. In America originally, later exported, some individualists from bourgeois or mandarin circles saw that the profession of anarchist ideas was the perfect moral excuse for avoiding taxation. Here one sees the conservative influence in a different sort of ‘unofficial anarchism’.
One must distinguish between (a) Anglo-Saxon pacifism, which is pure militant liberalism and has its own offshoots. (Liberalism seeks freedom within capitalism; anarchism implies there can be no freedom within the State.) Liberalism without its political connotations, though sometimes with, seeks to establish ‘rights’ (to an authoritarian or even a liberal, rights are given; to a libertarian they are taken–hence liberals can talk of rights of animals or foetuses but not libertarians–though it’s true they do so by a sheer misunderstanding of words). Libertarians do not necessarily oppose reforms, but Liberals live by them. (b) Gandhi-type pacifism–which as Gandhi himself said has more in common with war than Western pacifism. It is elitist, as it implies an elite takes power, and Gandhi indeed always had it. It requires much more of an elite even than Marxist-Leninism, and an elite which takes power is by definition elitist. (c) The pacifism that consists of struggling against militarism and imperialism, which is not necessarily liberal nor elitist. But where there is no conscription this does not exist.
Ecology is of course a vital issue today. Many people want to jump on the bandwagon, e.g. the Green Anarchists here (in Britain). Anarcho-syndicalists are for ecology. The argument by many ‘Greens’ that anarcho-syndicalism is against ecology, because it does not take up one issue that is trendy against all others, is false. We in the Anarchist Black Cross do not say that anyone who doesn’t support it must be in favour of anarchists being imprisoned!
It is false to say that there is a distinction between one form of genuine anarchism and another. The anarchosyndicalist movements of the world are all anarchist communist; the suggestion that collectivism was not communism has vanished nowadays (since collectives take communistic forms, and the question of work[er]s management and participation has resolved itself in international experience). Anarcho-syndicalist movements such as the CNT or the IWW in its heyday were patently individualistic, a darn sight more so than say Benjamin Tucker who was nothing if not a conformist! However, there is a distinction between genuine anarchism and the pale pink variants of it. The Freedom Press type anarchism has distinctions between Individualists and Communists which it seriously debates; and the Alternative Bookshop for its part has its distinctions between Agorism, anarcho-capitalism (!) and ministatism. If you lump all this together and call it the anarchist movement it is a pretty mixed bag and everyone quarrels with each other–something the academics love to say. If you take away what I have for convenience sake called the ‘genuine anarchists’ then it is fairly homogeneous.
The ‘sanitized’ anarchism of the Freedom Press type attracts more people, because it asks nothing of them but to sustain a paper managed by others. It is of tremendous damage to the growth of anarchism because it encourages people to talk of their ‘brand’ as ‘nonviolent anarchism’ thus strengthening the bourgeois myth that anarchism is of necessity violent. Because one does not accept the non-resistant brand of ‘non-violence’ does not make one (in normal speech) ‘violent’. 95 per cent of people are not Gandhians, nor are they mad axemen. Yes they defend themselves if they can, many of them unfortunately even defend their oppressors if they can, but that still does not make them ‘violent’ in the normal sense of the word. It is a regular feature when anarchists are on trial for counsel or judges not to bring in the facts that they are not pacifists to imply that they are thereby ‘violent’. It is part of the propaganda against anarchism. Also, this total commitment to non-violence breeds its own reaction, in that we see many young people learning about anarchism only from its liberal caricature, who reject ‘non-violence’ because it is ineffectual and think the alternative is the glorification of violence, e.g. the animal rights people go from extreme pacifism to talking about poisoning food etc. One London doctor, owning a fortune, proclaimed herself an ‘anarchist pacifist’. Asked for support for the Spanish resistance, she declined, claiming it was terrorist. Instead she gave a fortune, including a large amount that didn’t belong to her, to the IRA. Not terrorist because it was nationalist!
Many projects sound ‘anarchistic’ and the trouble is that anarchism can’t progress because it gets put by the public to whom it normally appeals into a ‘left ghetto’. The workers in the main hate the left which has been totally taken over by the failed mandarins, whose special interests may sound anarchistic but are basically power seeking. ‘Gay Liberation’ for instance–in the ’20s and ’30s the Communist Party attracted those who could not become successful mandarins because of sex discrimination, but remained in the ‘closet’–now they are able to advance and come out of the ‘closet’ but need to assert power. This type of homosexual politicization is totally alien to working class homosexuals, but is part and parcel of modern socialist politics. The support for nationalist movements to which students everywhere are devoted is another aspect of power seeking. It is the swiftest way of gaining power.
I conclude there is a total distinction between the anarchism traditionally known, and that which has grown up in recent, critical of it always, yet seeking ways to steal its history and clothing. It is unfortunate that no clearcut distinction has been made (such as the words Individualism and Communism, which are not applicable). For this reason I prefer myself to use the word Anarcho-syndicalism, which seems to be the one word they do not usually appropriate (or if they do, like Woodcock and [Philip] Sansom, afterwards reject, as being too redolent of working class association).
There is however another distinction. Quietists are those who are against action of any kind which can lead them into challenging the present order. They may be pacifists but not necessarily, and pacifists (e.g. the Greenham Common women) need not be quietists. Quietism, in which the Freedom Press tendency specializes is the main characteristic of those who are not militant liberals but merely use the anarchist philosophy as a handy armchair to flop on. They are far from intellectual but revel in calling themselves intellectuals. Quietism leads on to cynicism and one can say that this cynicism, which includes scorn for working class aspirations, is inimical to anarchism. To me, an anarchist is someone who believes in anarchism, believes it is possible, and takes action to bring it about. This definition excludes the quietists and the liberals, whatever their insistence that they are anarchists too, on one, two, or even all three counts.
Against this they postulate that ‘anyone is an anarchist who calls themselves an anarchist’. On this basis the word becomes utterly meaningless, and one may as well extend it, as the bourgeois press and Marxists do, to be anyone is an anarchist who are referred to as anarchists by the media and the Marxists! The Marxists love to denounce the anarchists on the basis not only of what some people calling themselves anarchists might have one or said, but on what anyone, whether calling themselves so or not but whom they consider anarchists, have done or said; while insisting they only be judged on paid up members of their own particular sect.
 Paul Eltzbacher (1868–1928), author of several works on anarchism. “Eltzbacher’s interest in anarchism emerged against the backdrop of the rise of a self‑described anarchist movement in the late nineteenth century. A “general awareness of an ‘anarchist’ position did not exist until after the appearance of its representatives in the late 1870s,” and anarchism “initially appeared to contemporaries to be a new phenomenon.” Further disco in ‘Socialism From Below: Defining Anarchism’, Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt (PDF). From L. van der Walt and M Schmidt, Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Oakland: AK Press, 2009), 44–81.