I read a discussion thread recently on the question “why is anarchism marginalised?” It’s a good question, though it is of course also the question that every crank asks themselves, in order to avoid the obvious answer “because your ideas are crap”. The thread mainly talks about the here-and-now details of strategy, but I’m interested in the broader historical question.
I should say that by ‘anarchism’ I mean anti-state socialism, and that in fact references here to anarchism could be replaced with references to ‘libertarian socialism’ more generally, as well as horizontally-organised groups of feminists, anti-racist activists, etc. as long as the stress is on the idea of self-emancipation: that the only people who can solve the problems of community X are, ultimately, the members of community X.
Now on the one hand I don’t want to buy into the oft-heard idea of anarchism as a wholly theoretical position, a set of ideas lacking and waiting for some application to the real world. Anarchism makes contact with the real world in myriad ways, from anarchists being involved in real activities and revolutions, to anarchic modes of organising in all sorts of organisations every day.
Nevertheless it is striking that there has never been what could be called a clearly successful and clearly anarchist ‘revolution’ or the creation of a distinctively anarchist society on a large scale for any appreciable period of time. And this is actually quite odd. Other doctrines have been much more successful on this score.
If we consider, as rivals to anarchism, doctrines which offer some sort of ‘deliverance’ or ‘salvation’ to ‘the masses’, then we can see a great variety of different such doctrines acheiving quite marked ‘success’ (although providing markedly little ‘deliverance’). Nationalism, both in its earlier liberal European form and in its later anti-colonial form, has led about as many successful seizures of power as there are countries in the world (not one each, obviously). ‘Political religionism’ has also established a number of successful states, of which Iran is the main modern example, but which pop up in different forms in various historical periods.
Liberalism and ‘democratism’ have, jointly or separately, engineered multiple new governments; getting a bit closer to anarchism’s turf, the two major forms of state ‘socialism’, Leninist one-partyism and parliamentary social democracy, have both been something like ‘in power’ for large percentages of the world’s population at various times.
All of these ideas have been, at one time or another, marginalised, persecuted, suppressed, and held by only a tiny minority. So what’s wrong with anarchism?
We might look again at the ‘successes’ of those other movements. What tends to happen in their revolutions, whether they are liberal revolutions (like the French), religious (like the Iranian), or state-socialist (like the Russian)? A certain pattern tends to recur: lots and lots of people are active, from a variety of classes and perspectives, then once the main blow has been struck, there’s an internal power-struggle and some bunch of motherfuckers shoot all the radicals and inform everyone else that the most revolutionary thing in the world is Discipline. Ten years down the line everyone finds that though there have been changes, the basic set-up is remarkably similar. Similar descriptions apply to electoral victories, though usually with less shooting.
And what’s striking is how apparently very very different ideologies can follow such similar patterns. What’s also striking is that it is quite obviously not possible for an anarchist revolution to succeed in this way. It’s not just that once you start shooting dissenters and demanding revolutionary discipline from everyone you’ve given up anarchism (after all, you’ve also given up plenty of other things, liberalism, socialism, not-being-a-mother-fucker-ism). It’s that the whole guiding theme of anarchist organisation is to avoid the existing any organisation that can carry out such tasks.
As that list of successes shows, this is a great weakness of anarchism. But as that list of “successes” also shows, it’s a great strength. I think it’s simultaneously the reason why anarchism has so far tended to have such little support, and why it is worthy of support.
This means, firstly, that it can’t appeal to aspiring mother-fuckers who want an ideology in which to cloak their desire to become the new ruling class, and secondly, also, that when it appeals to everyone else, to people who actually need it to combat exploitation and oppression, it must make a qualitatively greater demand on them: not “back us and we will solve your problems” but “solve your problems and we’ll back you”. In particular, it cannot offer either a leader to follow or an illusory triumph through sublimation into ‘the faithful’ or ‘the nation’.
Every crank with a minority view inflates the difference between their view and that of everyone else – just as left-wingers tend to see centrists as reactionaries and right-wingers tend to see them as socialists. Nevertheless, I do think it’s worth reflecting on this particular difference between anarchism and other sorts of ideologies: it doesn’t provide the right features either to gain people’s support by illusion, or to then shatter those illusions and turn on them. Most other ideologies not only have that capacity but a proven track record of doing so.
Admittedly it has the capacity to attract other sorts of undesirables, perhaps. The chronically disorganised are sometimes drawn to anarchism, as are the jumpily aggressive. But if you compare the number of people killed by hippies and hooligans over the 20th century with the number killed by inspiring, organised, salvation-promising mother-fuckers, I think the numbers give an indication of the relative weights of these problems.
Of course it might be asked whether such harmlessness is much good, if it comes at the price of effectiveness. To that I can only answer that in my opinion it will not be ineffective forever, for which perhaps this post will be the best argument.