Recently, The Happy Revolutionary asked me if I knew anything about a bloke calling himself the ‘Bay Area National Anarchists’ (BANA), as “Inexplicably, one of these national anarchists popped up on a blog I visit, bemoaning the terrible ‘oppression’ caused by political correctness. I was curious to see how this sort of far-right nonsense could have found itself married to anarchism.”
Perhaps a more apt description would be that a small number of fascists are feeling unrequited love of anarchy?
In any case, I confessed to having encountered the same group of Mealy Mouthed Rogues some years ago. (The best scholarly article on the subject that I’m aware of is Graham D. Macklin, ‘Co-opting the counter culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 39, No. 3, 2005 [PDF].)
As noted previously, the APEC meeting in Sydney in September 2007 — besides creating a police state and a final opportunity for George II to personally thank his lieutenant John HoWARd for eleven years of loyal service — witnessed a new pimple arise on the body politic: the notional anarchists of the New Reich. As a result, a statement was produced by local anarchists following the NR’s emergence, and it will appear in the new issue of Mutiny zine. Aside from that, there’s been little reaction on the part of local anarchists, and presumably won’t be until such time as the (er) anarchist Darrin Hodges joins his comrades in another public demonstration.
On the other side of the fence, I’ve recently stumbled upon a thread on the “pathetic” statement in question on a fascist forum, FolkandFaith. Unsurprisingly, the very brief discussion it generated further demonstrates the general witlessness and political incoherence of those who subscribe to the idiotic concept of ‘national anarchism’. Nevertheless, the intervention of Welf Herfurth’s mob in Sydney — and the existence of a handful of individuals in Australia willing to pose as such — is not without some greater utility, and that is principally to force some other, self-proclaimed anarchists to confront their own political incoherence. In large measure, this incoherence is based upon a misunderstanding of both anarchism and (political) authority: that is, in conceiving of ‘anarchism’ as nothing more nor less than the rejection of any and all forms of authority, ‘anarchists’ of this under-performing school are necessarily incapable of a political perspective — of any sort. Thus when a group of racists emerge proclaiming themselves to be ‘anarchists’, other ‘anarchists’ simply recoil. Lacking the ‘authority’ to assume their own perspective on ‘anarchism’, they also lack the authority to deny this same ‘authority’ to others, whatever bizarre spin they wish to place upon it.
Below is something I prepared earlier. On a vaguely-related note, see also ‘communist headache’, theory of the offensive, December 24, 2007.
- In the popular imagination, according to anarchist historian Peter Marshall: “Anarchy is terror, the creed of bomb-throwing desperadoes wishing to pull down civilization. Anarchy is chaos, when law and order collapse and the destructive passions of man run riot.” For this reason, anarchy is the spectre “that haunts the judge’s bench and the government cabinet”. The depth of anarchism’s unpopularity with government leaders was perhaps most ably expressed in 1901 by President Theodore Roosevelt when, following President McKinley’s assassination by the sometime anarchist Leon Czolgosz, he declared that “Anarchism is a crime against the whole human race and all mankind should band against anarchists”. Two years later the US Congress enacted the Anarchist Exclusion Act, banning alien anarchists and any person “who disbelieves in or is opposed to all organized governments”. It’s worth noting that this law remains in force, and it still remains possible for anyone courageous (or naïve) enough to declare their belief in a world without government to United States authorities to be denied entry to the country on that basis.
Of course, anarchism’s unsavoury reputation among government leaders and the general public is not the only barrier one faces in trying to arrive at a more coherent definition than that given by President Roosevelt. Noam Chomsky, for example, has written that, given the diverse ideas and practices that have at one time or another been referred to as “anarchist”, it would be a “hopeless” task to try and construct some general anarchist theory. However, if anarchism is understood less as a fixed ideology and more as an historical movement leading towards greater human freedom then “at a particular time there is every reason to develop, insofar as our understanding permits, a specific realisation of this definite trend in the historic development of mankind [sic], appropriate to the tasks of the moment”.
Notwithstanding Chomsky’s cautionary approach to arriving at a more general definition of anarchism, at the core of anarchist philosophy is the idea of human freedom, and the belief that human beings are most happy when they are free to realize themselves through their own creative efforts. From a literal viewpoint, while “basically mean[ing] ‘origin’, ‘beginning’, and, in a concrete sense, ‘uterus’… [if] [o]ver the centuries the meaning of arché has shifted to include ‘power, rule, domination’” an arché (anarchy) may be understood as meaning ‘without rulers’. The anarchist vision, therefore, is of a classless, stateless or ‘non-hierarchical’ society. For Mikhail Bakunin, that ‘fanatical lover of Liberty’ (as he described himself) and Marx’s chief rival within the First International, this liberty was:
…not official “Liberty”, licensed, measured and regulated by the State, a falsehood representing the privileges of a few resting on the slavery of everybody else; not the individual liberty, selfish, mean, and fictitious advanced by the school of Rousseau and all other schools of bourgeois Liberalism, which considers the rights of the individual as limited by the rights of the State… No, I mean the only liberty which is truly worthy of the name, the liberty which consists in the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are to be found as faculties latent in everybody, the liberty which recognises no other restrictions than those which are traced for us by the laws of our own nature; so that properly speaking there are no restrictions, since these laws are not imposed on us by some legislator, beside us or above us; they are immanent in us, inherent, constituting the very basis of our being, material as well as intellectual and moral; instead, therefore, of finding them a limit, we must consider them as the real conditions and effective reason for our liberty.
Further, this concept of freedom is eminently social: “The freedom of each [individual] is… realizable only in the equality of all. The realization of freedom through equality, in principle and fact, is justice”.
In attempting to arrive at a more coherent and expansive anarchist social theory, one describing “a mode of human organization… rooted in the experience of everyday life”, the English anarchist writer Colin Ward identifies a number of definite trends: “the ideas of direct action, autonomy and workers’ control, decentralization and federalism”. However, these ideas, while helping to illuminate key trends within anarchist political philosophy, are insufficient to arrive at a sophisticated and balanced conceptualisation and definition of anarchist thought, and our search for this begins, appropriately enough, with an examination of anarchism’s origins in ‘The Age of Revolution’.
Anarchism as a modern political philosophy first developed in the mid-nineteenth century, and the French printer, ‘Man of Paradox’ and ‘Philosopher of Poverty’ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) is usually credited with being the first thinker, in 1840, to consciously call himself an ‘anarchist’: a term that until that point had been used in an exclusively negative fashion, one synonymous with chaos. In What is Property? Proudhon, in response to an imaginary critic shocked at his renunciation of the major strands of political thinking—republicanism, democracy, monarchism, constitutionalism and the aristocracy—states that his use of the term ‘anarchist’ to describe his political perspective is not at all humorous: “I have just given you my considered and serious profession of faith. Although I am a strong supporter of order, I am in the fullest sense of the term, an anarchist”. Exactly what Proudhon meant by that he explains by recounting the struggles of the ‘Man of Reason’ against illegitimate authority. According to Proudhon, through man’s [sic] efforts to develop his understanding of himself and his place in the world—efforts which are understood to be inextricably linked to his efforts to extricate himself from unjust authority—“sovereignty of the will retreats before the sovereignty of reason… [Thus] Anarchy, absence of master, of sovereign—that is the form of government to which we draw closer day by day…”
Property is Theft!
Of course, What is Property? is famous not only for being the first occasion upon which a political thinker consciously and publicly adopted the term ‘anarchist’, but moreover for being one of the first shots fired at one of the cornerstones of modern capitalism: property. What is property? For Proudhon, ‘property is theft’. Described by James Joll as “one of the most effective revolutionary slogans of the nineteenth century”, and hailed by Karl Marx as a “penetrating work” and “the first decisive, vigorous and scientific examination of property”, What is Property? is striking therefore, for its denunciations of both government and property. In short, Proudhon is not solely opposed to government, and his opposition to it is not simply because ‘government’ places fetters upon the workings of the ‘free market’ (as some latter-day ‘libertarians’ or ‘anarcho-capitalists’ argue.) In other words, Proudhon’s critique of modern society is grounded in both anti-statist and anti-capitalist principles. Further, Proudhon argued that if we reject property, we must also reject government. In more contemporary parlance, anti-capitalism necessarily implies anti-statism.
Property is the right to use and abuse. If, then, government is an economy, if its object is production and consumption, the distribution of labour and products, how is government possible while property exists? And if goods are property, why should not the proprietors be kings, and indeed despotic kings, kings in proportion to their acquisitive faculties? And if each proprietor is sovereign lord within the sphere of his property, absolute king throughout his own domain, how could a government of proprietors be anything but chaos and confusion?
It could be argued that the notion that proprietors should be ‘despotic kings’ found its legal and political confirmation in the advent of the corporation, especially from the point when, in 1886, the US Supreme Court gave corporations the rights of persons.
In any case, whatever his later political prevarications, and despite the many, sometimes contradictory interpretations of his thought—as Daniel Guerín notes, Proudhon was “at one and the same time, the father of “scientific socialism”, of socialist political economy and of modern sociology, the father of anarchism, of mutualism, of revolutionary syndicalism, of federalism and of… collectivism” —it is this opposition to the rule of both state and capital that marks Proudhon as the first of his era to expound the political principles upon which anarchism as a social movement was to be built. Indeed, Mikhail Bakunin, one of the other great anarchist figures of the nineteenth century, defined anarchism as “Proudhonism greatly developed and pushed to its further conclusion”.
While in this statement Bakunin may have been underemphasising the complex and contradictory nature of much of Proudhon’s thought—features which obviously render problematic the apparently simple work of transmuting ‘Proudhonism’ into ‘anarchism’—it is nevertheless true that the key ideas Proudhon formulated have played a highly productive role in germinating further explorations in anarchist social theory.
In his history of anarchism, George Woodcock makes a crucial distinction between anarchism as idea and anarchism as movement. As movement, Woodcock regarded the destruction of the Spanish Republic in 1939—and the defeat of the predominantly anarchist social revolution that existed largely in opposition to the Republic —as marking “the death of classic anarchism… the movement that Bakunin had founded during the internal struggles of the International in the 1860s”. In the second edition of his history, however, Woodcock was forced to concede that, in the twenty-five years since his book’s initial publication:
…anarchism has re-emerged in new forms, adapted to a changing world… one can no longer validly argue that anarchism in any final sense came to an end in 1939, though the old traditional anarchism did. The idea has revived astonishingly, assuming new manifestations…
In the almost twenty years since the publication of the second edition of his history, anarchism has again proven its durability. While part of the reason for this longevity may be located ‘outside’ of anarchism—that is, in the economic, political and cultural context in which movements and ideas either find their place and flourish or remain marginal and have little political or cultural impact—the (anarchist) idea that ‘property is theft’ is one that has continuing relevance. It finds its contemporary echo in many of the slogans that have been adopted by ‘anti-globalisation’ movements and the attack on private ownership represented by What is Property? remains at the very core of contemporary anarchist philosophy. Moreover, as one of the first properly anarchist treatments of the question of ‘property’ and its ethical and political significance, Proudhon’s What is Property? is—despite its many stylistic flourishes, polemical exaggerations and Proudhon’s delight in the use of irony, contradiction and his status as a ‘connoisseur of paradox’—a central document in the history of anarchist ideas, and one worth exploring not only for its own sake but also in order to establish the rationale behind anarchism’s revolutionary contempt for capitalist social relations.
I live, like you, in a century in which reason is subordinate only to fact and to proof. My name, like yours, is SEEKER OF TRUTH. My mission inscribed in these words of the law: “Speak without hate or fear, and say what you know!”
What Proudhon knew about property he expressed in a typically rambling and ironic fashion: he did not mean literally what he said. (Or at least, not always!) For Proudhon, ‘property’ was ownership of the fruits of another’s labour. ‘Possession’, on the other hand, he (loosely) defined as referring to the right of man (sic) to own and control his means of survival. Thus:
Under “property” one may distinguish between: I. Property pure and simple, the right of domain over a thing, or as they say, “naked property”. II. Possession. “Possession,” says [Alexandre] Duranton, “is a matter of fact, not of right.” [Charles] Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power; possession is a fact.” The tenant, the farmer, the shareholder, and the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who rents and lends for use and the heir who waits for the death of the usufructuary to come into possession, are proprietors. To venture a comparison: a lover is a possessor, the husband a proprietor.
Proudhon’s vision of a just society led him to condemn one in which those who own property thereby assume the right to govern. As such, What is Property? may be understood as a nascent version of the more properly socialist doctrine that Bakunin, Marx and a host of other thinkers would develop in later years. Thus whatever one makes of the value of Proudhon’s work as a whole—as Peter Marshall has noted, “Proudhon was one of the most paradoxical and inconsistent social thinkers of the nineteenth century” —in rejecting property and government, Proudhon provided the basis for the elaboration of a specifically anarchist political philosophy. As Woodcock writes:
By rejecting government and the non-working proprietor, by advocating economic equality and free contractual relationships between independent workers, What is Property? contains the basic elements from which all later libertarian and decentralist doctrines have been built. But it contained them in an undeveloped form.
As with other social theories, one measure of the value of Proudhon’s thought may be found by examining its impact upon social practice. In terms of the development of socialist doctrines in France, for example, his followers played a crucial role. According to Woodcock, “the French workers who helped to found the [First] International… many leaders of the Commune of 1871, and most of the syndicalist militants of the French trade unions between 1890 and 1910” owed a great deal to his work. These links between anarchist political philosophers and labour movements were to culminate in the theory and practice of anarcho-syndicalism. Before examining the emergence of such movements, however, it is worth tracing Proudhon’s ideas as they developed in the work of the one of the other great nineteenth century anarchist thinkers: Mikhail Bakunin.
Born into the Russian aristocracy and widely regarded as ‘the father of anarchism’, it should be noted that Bakunin’s anarchism did not develop until much later in life, his first public declaration occurring in a speech to the League for Peace and Freedom in 1868. This is an important point because Bakunin’s critics, especially “Marxists”, often attempt to demonstrate the essential incoherency of Bakunin’s philosophy by contrasting his earlier, non-anarchist works with those of his mature, anarchist period.
In the First International, Bakunin was Marx’s chief adversary, arguing against the ‘politicisation’ of the class struggle and the centralisation of the socialist movement. So effective was he that, rather than risk losing control, Marx moved the headquarters of the International to New York, where it soon collapsed.
Leonard Krimerman and Lewis Perry note that Bakunin:
has been frequently depicted as an opéra bouffe character… his writings… described as preposterous, chaotic, incomplete. One is left to puzzle at his ability to stalemate Marx in competition for the loyalty of the International and at the endurance of the Bakuninist tradition in the Mediterranean countries.
In seeking to answer this puzzle, of explaining how such a disreputable thinker and incorrigible conspirator could possibly have had such a profound impact upon the development of nineteenth (and twentieth) century socialist thought, Richard B. Saltman argues that Bakunin’s political philosophy is far from the caricature provided by hostile critics. According to Saltman, Bakunin’s theory is centred on three critiques: of the state, of science, and of capitalism…
To be continued…