Revolution Is More Than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism

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Gabriel Kuhn
PM Press

This text originally appeared on Alpine Anarchist Productions, a project I've been involved with for the past 15 years.


Since the turn of the millennium, anarchism has experienced a strong upswing. In a widely read 2004 article by David Graeber and Andrej Grubačić, it was announced as the “revolutionary movement of the twenty-first century”, and in a recent book on the Occupy Wall Street movement, titled Translating Anarchy and based on interviews with numerous organizers, author Mark Bray contests that anarchist ideas were the driving ideological force behind it. Meanwhile, anarchist projects (journals, bookfairs, organizing groups) have increased significantly over the past twenty years. This is all great news.

At the same time, neoliberalism rules supreme, the gaps between the rich and the poor grow wider by the day, wars are waging, surveillance has surpassed Orwellian levels, and nothing seems able to stop the ecological destruction of the world as we know it. If the current order is challenged in any significant way, the agents are either religious fundamentalists, neofascists, or, in the best case, left-wing movements revolving around charismatic leaders and populist parties. Even if anarchists like to claim anarchist elements in uprisings, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, it is questionable whether self-declared anarchists really have played any significant role in these events. In short, despite the mentioned upswing, anarchism appears as marginalized as ever when it comes to the grand scale of things. In light of this, it seems as good a time as any to reflect on anarchism’s role in the overall political arena and to examine its strengths and weaknesses.

The contents of this text are presented in a concise and straightforward manner, which makes generalizations inevitable. They are based on experiences in Western and Northern Europe; readers will have to decide how much these experiences match their own and how relevant they are for the scenes they themselves are active in.

What is anarchism?

In postmodern times, it has become popular to forgo definitions, as they supposedly put our thoughts into cages. This is a cop-out. It is self-evident that definitions are but tools for communication and can’t lay claim on capturing the essence of a given phenomenon. A practical definition is based on certain criteria: the origin of a term and etymological aspects, its usage and change of meaning over time, and terminological coherence within the language system we are using. The following working definition of anarchism ought to be understood in that way.

Anarchism is, first, the attempt to establish an egalitarian society that allows for the freest development of its individual members possible. The egalitarianism is the necessary precondition for this free development being attainable for everyone and not just a chosen few. It is curtailed only by inhibiting the free development of others; clear boundaries can’t be drawn (where does one’s freedom end and another one’s begin?) but this does not mean that they can’t be negotiated.

So far, this definition doesn’t stray far from the Marxist idea of communism. The difference lies in its second part, namely the belief that the establishment of an egalitarian society enabling free individual development is dependent on political actors implementing the essential values of such a society immediately, in their ways of organizing, living, and fighting. Today, this is often called “prefigurative” politics. It implies that no dictatorship of the proletariat, no benevolent leaders, no well-meaning vanguards can pave the way to the society desired; the people have to do this themselves. The people also need to develop the structures necessary to defend and preserve such a society. Self-management, mutual aid, horizontal organization, and the fight against all forms of oppression are key principles of anarchism.

The origin of anarchism as a self-defined political movement dates back to the social question in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Anarchists were part of the International Workingmen’s Association, better known as the First International, together with the political forces that would later turn into social democrats on the one hand and Leninists on the other. (1) We consider this origin important and see anarchism as part of the left-wing tradition. We are opposed to declaring anarchism a “philosophy”, an “ethic”, a “principle”, or a “way of life” rather than a political movement. An existential attitude is one thing; organizing for political change is another. Without proper organizing, anarchism is easily reduced to a noble idea, reflecting religion or hipsterism more than political ambition. At the same time, anarchism is not just antiauthoritarian class struggle. It is broader and includes activities that range from setting up social centers to deconstructing gender norms to conceiving alternative forms of transportation. Anarchism’s prefigurative dimension has always included questions that didn’t fit narrow definitions of the Left: dietary, sexual, and spiritual concerns as well as matters of personal ethics.

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