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March 9, 2009

Brief thoughts on Anarchism(s) and Anarchists

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Philosophy,Utopia — rmangum @ 3:53 am
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aTemperamentally, I’ve always been a libertarian, even though I’ve only been familiar with the literature and specific ideas of that political tribe for a few years. I’ve self-identified as an anarchist for little more than a year, and came to it by way of the writings of the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard. Of course, traditionally anarchists have opposed capitalism as much as they have opposed the state, so there is naturally a rift between (for lack of a better designation, which I am not convinced is appropriate) right and left anarchists. I suspect, without having developed a coherent theory about it, that there is an insuperable gulf between these two anarchisms in either theory or practice.

As of late, I have become more interested in the intellectual history of anarchism as such, and have taken up the task of reading the literature of the classical anarchists. Thanks to Librivox, I have just finished Kropotkin‘s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution an impressive work that, while I don’t feel I agree with entirely, has caused me to rethink my assumptions about social cooperation, capitalism, and the state. At the moment, I am engaged in an interesting experiment: listening to the audiobooks, in alternating chapters, of Bakunin‘s incomplete anarchist manifesto God and the State and Conrad’s novel of political intrigue, The Secret Agent, which presents an extremely unflattering portrayal of anarchists (though a not exactly positive portrait of police and government agents, either.) Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing about these books until I’ve finished them and developed my thoughts some more, and since I have only the audiobooks, I won’t be able to provide direct quotations, but for whatever they’re worth, here are some of my impressions:

Anarchism as a political theory has gotten a raw deal. In the first place, it is generally not viewed as a political theory at all, but rather a 605px-kropotkin_nadarromantic passion, or some sort of pathology. Never is it assumed to have any philosophical foundations. Even on the political far left, which is most sympathetic, it is often assumed to be a form revolutionary practice, as opposed to radical theory, which was handed down on stone tablets by Marx coming down from Mt. Sinai. First of all, anyone who bothers to read Kropotkin will find someone with a careful, scholarly mind, not given to make emotional statements for the sake of shock value, unsupported by fact. Mutual Aid is an attempt to revise the understanding of evolution as understood by the social Darwinists, showing that cooperation is in fact the dominant factor in both human and animal societies, from the primitive on up to the modern. I don’t personally accept the view he presents wholesale, but that is an issue for another post. The point is that it is a scholarly work that deserves more attention than it has received. My impression of Bakunin, thus far, is someone who, while not a very original or prefound thinker, knows his philosophy and presents his arguments in a coherent and lucid way (thus putting him way ahead of Jameson, Rorty, Baudrillard, and a half-dozen postmodern academics whose fame and influence on intellectuals far surpasses Bakunin’s).

449px-bakunin_nadarFurthermore, it becomes clear in the writings of both of these anarchists that they have an enormous respect for science and reason. Bakunin, in particular, deserves credit for recognizing that while the hope of civilization lies in the Enlightenment aspiration to spread rationality, there is a danger in making a new priesthood out of scientists and social engineers, for two reasons: one, it is destructive of liberty; two, it misunderstands the nature of scientific knowledge, which is a decentralized process where no person has any innate authority- all may criticize all.  Bakunin is likely criticizing here the notion of “scientific socialism”, but one also thinks of the views of Comte and Dewey and the rise of the managerial/theraputic state of educrats in the 20th century, whose story is masterfully told in Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism. This is a subtle insight, lost on the majority of modern intellectuals and social reformers.

As for anarchists generally, when they have not been feared as bomb-throwing terrorists, they have been dismissed as utopian dreamers. Again, I have to stress my recent status as a convert and a sketchy impression of the history of the movement, but my understanding is that there is some evidence to support this view, though not nearly as much as you would think. As I understand it, anarchism is nonviolence or it is nothing, and those committing violence do so in the name of chaos, not anarchy. As for utopianism, what political movement could not have been accused of this at some point. In my own view, the real utopia is limited and responsible government. bn

Conrad’s portrayal of anarchists in The Secret Agent consists of some of each of these caricatures, and something more. They are shown as comical and pathetic figures, a motley crew of pretentious bumblers incessantly arguing with one another to no purpose whatsoever. In the midst of this group is an agent provocateur (himself a rather ineffectual lackey of the state bureaucracy), Verloc, who is tasked with blowing up the Greenwich Observatory in order precipitate a government crackdown on subversives (especially of the foreign variety). This situation is all-too reminiscent to the American militia groups in the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s, as portrayed in Jess Walter’s Every Knee Shall Bow, about the white separatist Weaver family, and the remarkable first part of Abrose Evans-Pritchard’s The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, on the connections between the Oklahoma City bombing and separatists at Elohim City (which was rife with informants to various agencies and bureaus). These groups were mostly not anarchists (they usually identified themselves as “patriots”), but the similarity is there. The novel also contains a memorably fearsome character known as “The Professor”, not so much an anarchist as nihilistic sociopath. Theodore Kaczinski, a.k.a. the Unabomber confessed his identification with this character. He read the book over and over again and once gave the book to family members so that they might understand him.

Conrad’s portrayal ultimately does not capture the breadth of anarchist ideas or personalities, but there is a grain of truth here that must sting. Marginalized philosophies may attract marginal people, the kind of maimed resenters bent on revenge against beauty and truth Nietzsche spent his career railing against; and movements which aim for a revolution in society and ideas may attract those with a rage for destruction for its own sake. We must therefore teach the love of freedom as much as the hatred of exploitation, love of art and intellect without making gods or politicians out of artists and intellectuals, radicalism without narrow-mindedness. If there is anything we must hate and put down ruthlessly, it is pessimism and cynicism, (while at the same time respect the truths brought to us by those who insist that we live in the worst of all possible worlds) not because we belief in the inevitable progress of civilization or the perfectibility of man, but because the idea that the world and the people in it are worthless is the next step to exterminating the brutes, to wishing mankind all had one neck for the chopping, to giving the world over to the Professor.

All things fall and are built again                                                                                                                                             And those that build them again are gay. – Yeats, “Lapis Lazuli”



  1. I’ve been looking at a synthetic view of the mutual aid concept, and what most people call, “social darwinism,” given to us by Herbert Spencer.

    Comment by Leo T. Magnificent — March 17, 2009 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

  2. That’s about where I am as well, but I haven’t read enough Spencer yet. Attacks on “social Darwinism”- and likely some social Darwinist theories- generally rest on a false analogy between competition in nature among the animals and competition in a free market among producers. The former is usually competition to consume resources, often resulting in depletion, while the latter is competition in the production of goods.

    Kropotkin’s book chronicles the myriad forms of mutual aid in different societies, beginning with the animal kingdom, then primitive and tribal man, the medieval free city (undoubtedly the most fascinating chapter), and finally contemporary Europe. He admirably admits the existence of flaws in each of these, but to my mind fails to confront the main flaw in the societies he has most admiration for: communalism and the mutual aid instinct prevails within the tribe but not necessarily without. This is natural of course, and need not result in tribal or national warfare even if this has been the case throughout history, but it might be added that an external free market (inter-tribal division of labor) is a good way for tribes, nations, and religious groups to have peaceful interaction and mutual self-interest. You could call it microeconomic socialism and macroeconomic capitalism (nearly the opposite of what we have now). The collectivism and anti-bourgeois animus of left-anarchists like Kropotkin and Bakunin seem to discount this, however, despite the fact that the classical free-traders and modern market libertarians have been some of the most devoted to international peace.

    A successful synthesis would take into account not only a libertarian like Spencer and the communal mutual aid ideas of Kropotkin, but Adam Smith’s first book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” which actually covers some of the same ground as Kropotkin.

    Comment by rmangum — March 17, 2009 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

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