How Should Anarchists Fight a War?

A few thoughts on ‘anarchist warfare’ and ‘statist warfare’.

In normal wars (though to varying degrees), the contest is between two or more territory-controlling forces. The activity of ‘controlling’ territory is distinct from the activity of living there; the contending forces are thus distinct from the populations inhabiting the areas fought over (again, to varying degrees). Consequently, the inhabiting population tends to appear as a passive ‘background’, as what is ‘fought over’.

As long as this pattern is in place, I would call the conflict ‘statist’ regardless of whether it’s one ‘official’ state against another, one ‘rebel’ group against another, an established government against rebels, etc. The point is, insofar as the dynamic of the war divides the population in general from the contending forces, and makes one passive and the other active, the essential dynamics of statehood are in play.

So what would an anarchist war look like? The ideal (however closely it is or isn’t acheived) is that this division between warring force and local population not exist. That is, the ideal would be that the activity of ‘controlling’ territory be simply an aspect of living there; that local populations at each point be actively organised to maintain something like a ‘monopoly of violence’ in that area.

That is, to have participatory dispute-resolution mechanisms, participatory measures for combatting small-scale violence, and participatory measures for combatting large-scale violence, along with democratic structures for planning and co-ordinating their activities at every scale.

One consequence would be that rather than fighting being either ‘defensive’ (seeking to maintain control over an area already controlled) or ‘offensive’ (seeking to gain control over an area not already controlled), it would be either ‘defensive’ or ‘catalytic’ – seeking to encourage the population of an area controlled by an enemy force to depose them, institute anarchic rule, and (hopefully) make peace.

A further consequence is that since ‘offensive’ fighting becomes impossible, ‘indiscriminate’ methods become impractical, as well as immoral. If your goal is to encourage the organised self-assertion of a local population, and to hope for their support, it would make no sense at all to set off bombs in that area that would separate children’s feet from their legs or leave random people homeless.

In a way, such anarchistic war would be both a struggle against the enemy and a struggle against war itself – in that circumstances of mistrust, fear, danger, grief, and unpredictable disaster are all liable, in general, to undermine the sorts of habits that make communal organised self-assertion easier (e.g. trust, willingness to make sacrifices without an guarantee of immediate compensation, etc).

This is both a weakness and a strength – we would expect any good way to wage war to be like this, because war is a disastrous thing.

Of course, it might be objected – what if a population, while running itself in a wholly participatory, anarchistic (Communist! Genderless! Vegan!) manner, still seeks to assault, dominate, invade or bomb neighbouring areas?

It’s true that nothing I’ve said so far tells us what to do in such a situation. I don’t think we should expect it to: such a situation is a ‘tragic’ one, in that no response is really a good one. Ethical principles break down, and contradict each other. All that can be said is that based on the specifics of the situation, people would have to decide what response produced the best results.

But I wouldn’t be an anarchist if I didn’t think that such an eventuality was unlikely – if I didn’t think that people who had the fullest and most substantial freedom would be immunised against the petty hatreds and emotional ignorance that leads to support for war, besides being freed from the structures that give some people an abiding interest in sending people to war.

2 Responses to “How Should Anarchists Fight a War?”

  1. Colm O'Connor Says:

    Have you read ? It provides some interesting insights into how an anarchist organisation fights a war.

    I think that most ‘anarchist’ war would constitute what is nowadays termed ‘terrorism’ or insurgency. The war would seek not to capture territory directly, but to destroy the heart of the war-making machine. Thus, it would mean targeting and disrupting state infrastructure and the supply chain.

    John Robb does excellent research of this growing phenomenon –

    Likewise, it is not enough to just destroy the state (that typically leads just to a state of warlordism – that is, a series of mini-states ruled over by mini-dictators – c.f. somalia), but there also needs to be an ‘anarchist infrastructure’ that is both resilient and decentralized that will ensure that society is held together and doesn’t degenerate into warlordism.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I’ve not read Homage to Catalonia, although I’ve meant to – indeed I was conscious writing the article of my relative lack of historical knowledge, though I made a cursory effort at research. I think it’s correct to muddy the waters regarding terminology – war vs. insurgency, etc. Also to centre on the idea of dismantling the functioning of ‘the war-making machine’.

    Warlordism is, in a way, my concern here – it’s what happens when the central authority fails but the population is still organised appropriately for passivity, of which domination is the flipside. So obviously there’s a ‘power vacuum’ to produce that flipside. And the solution is to have the population organised well enough to be a ‘power plenum’ on their own.

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