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. Anarchy is nihilism, the abandonment of all moral values and the twilight of reason. This is the spectre of anarchy that haunts the judge’s bench and the government cabinet. In the popular imagination, in our everyday language, anarchy is associated with destruction and disobedience but also with relaxation and freedom. The anarchist finds good company, it seems, with the vandal, iconoclast, savage, brute, ruffian, hornet, viper, ogre, ghoul, wild beast, fiend, harpy and siren.’ He has been immortalized for posterity in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent (r 907) as a fanatic intent on bringing down governments and civilized society.
Not surprisingly, anarchism has had a bad press. It is usual to dismiss its ideal of pure liberty at best as utopian, at worst, as a dangerous chimera. Anarchists are dismissed as subversive madmen, inflexible extremists, dangerous terrorists on the one hand, or as naive dreamers and gentle saints on the other. President Theodore Roosevelt declared at the end of the last century: ‘Anarchism is a crime against the whole human race and all mankind should band against anarchists.”
In fact, only a tiny minority of anarchists have practised terror as a revolutionary strategy, and then chiefly in the i 89os when there was a spate of spectacular bombings and political assassinations during a period of complete despair. Although often associated with violence, historically anarchism has been far less violent than other political creeds, and appears as a feeble youth pushed out of the way by the marching hordes of fascists and authoritarian communists. It has no monopoly on violence, and compared to nationalists, populists, and monarchists has been comparatively peaceful. Moreover, a tradition which encompasses such thoughtful and peaceable men as Godwin, Proudhon, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy can hardly be dismissed as inherently terroristic and nihilistic. Of the classic anarchist thinkers, only Bakunin celebrated the poetry of destruction in his early work, and that because like many thinkers and artists he felt it was first necessary to destroy the old in order to create the new.
The dominant language and culture in a society tend to reflect the values and ideas of those in power. Anarchists more than most have been victims of the tyranny of fixed meanings, and have been caught up in what Thomas Paine called the ‘Bastille of the word’. But it is easy to see why rulers should fear anarchy and wish to label anarchists as destructive fanatics for they question the very foundations of their rule. The word ‘anarchy’ comes from the ancient Greek avaextct meaning the condition of being
without a leader' but usually translated and interpreted as 'without a ruler'.</strong> From the beginning, it made sense for rulers to tell their subjects that without their rule there would be tumult and mayhem; as Yeats wrote:Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’3 In the same way, upholders of law argued that a state of `lawlessness’ would mean turmoil, licence and violence. Governments with known laws are therefore necessary to maintain order and calm.
But it became increasingly clear to bold and independent reasoners that while States and governments were theoretically intended to prevent injustice, they had in fact only perpetuated oppression and inequality. The State with its coercive apparatus of law, courts, prisons and army came to be seen not as the remedy for but rather the principal cause of social disorder. Such unorthodox thinkers went still further to make the outlandish suggestion that a society without rulers would not fall into a condition of chaotic unruliness, but might produce the most desirable form of ordered human existence.
The ‘state of nature’, or society without government, need not after all be Hobbes’ nightmare of permanent war of all against all, but rather a condition of peaceful and productive living. Indeed, it would seem closer to Locke’s state of nature in which people live together in a state of ‘perfect freedom to order their actions’, within the bounds of the law of nature, and live ‘according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them’.’ Anarchists merely reject Locke’s suggestion that in such a condition the enjoyment of life and property would be necessarily uncertain or inconvenient.
For this reason, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, writing in the nineteenth century, launched the apparent paradox: ‘Anarchy is Order.‘ Its revolutionary import has echoed ever since, filling rulers with fear, since they might be made obsolete, and inspiring the dispossessed and the thoughtful with hope, since they can imagine a time when they might be free to govern themselves.
The historic anarchist movement reached its highest point to date in two of the major revolutions of the twentieth century — the Russian and the Spanish. In the Russian Revolution, anarchists tried to give real meaning to the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’, and in many parts, particularly in the Ukraine, they established free communes. But as the Bolsheviks concentrated their power, the anarchists began to lose ground. Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, crushed the anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine, and then put down the last great libertarian uprising of sailors and workers known as the Kronstadt Mutiny in 1921.
By far the greatest anarchist experiment took place in Spain in the 193os. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, peasants, especially in Andalucia, Arag6n and Valencia, set up with fervour a network of collectives in thousands of villages. In Catalunya, the most highly developed industrial part of Spain, anarchists managed the industries through workers’ collectives based on the principles of self-management. George Orwell has left a remarkable account of the revolutionary atmosphere in his Homage to Catalonia (1938). But the intervention of fascist Italy and Germany on the side of Franco and his rebels, and the policy of the Soviet Union to funnel its limited supply of arms through the Communists, meant that the experiment was doomed. Communists and anarchists fought each other in Barcelona in 1937, and Franco triumphed soon after. Millions of Spanish anarchists went underground or lost their way.
The Second World War which followed shattered the international anarchist movement, and the most dedicated were reduced to running small magazines and recording past glories. Only Gandhi’s strategy of civil disobedience used to oust the British from India and his vision of a decentralized society based on autonomous villages seemed to show a libertarian glimmer. When George Woodcock wrote his history of anarchism at the beginning of the 196os, he sadly concluded that the anarchist movement was a lost cause and that the anarchist ideal could principally help us ‘to judge our condition and see our aims’ 5 The historian James Joll also struck an elegiac note soon after and announced the failure of anarchism as ‘a serious political and social force’, while the sociologist Irving Horowitz argued that it was ‘foredoomed to failure’.6
Events soon proved them wrong. Anarchism as a volcano of values and ideas was dormant, not extinct. The sixties saw a remarkable revival, although in an unprecedented and more diffuse form. Many of the themes of the New Left — decentralization, workers’ control, participatory democracy — were central anarchist concerns. Thoughtful Marxists like E. P. Thompson began to call themselves ‘libertarian’ socialists in order to distance themselves from the authoritarian tactics of vanguard parties. The growth of the counter-culture, based on individuality, community, and joy, expressed a profound anarchist sensibility, if not a self-conscious knowledge. Once again, it became realistic to demand the impossible.
Tired of the impersonality of monolithic institutions, the hollow trickery of careerist politics, and the grey monotony of work, disaffected middleclass youth raised the black flag of anarchy in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. In 1968 the student rebellions were of libertarian inspiration. In Paris street posters declared paradoxically ‘Be realistic: Demand the impossible’, ‘It is forbidden to forbid’ and ‘Imagination is seizing power’. The Situationists called for a thorough transformation of everyday life. The Provos and then the Kabouters in Holland carried on the tradition of creative confrontation. The spontaneous uprisings and confrontations at this time showed how vulnerable modern centralized States could be.
The historians took note. Daniel Gu6rin’s lively L’Anarchisme: de la doctrine a [‘action (1965) both reflected and helped develop the growing libertarian sensibility of the 196os: it became a best-seller and was translated into many languages. Gu&in concluded that it might well be State communism, and not anarchism, which was out of step with the needs of the contemporary world, and felt his prediction fully vindicated by the events of 1968 in Prague and Paris.’ Joll was obliged to acknowledge that anarchism was still a living tradition and not merely of psychological or historical interest.8 Woodcock too confessed that he had been too hasty in pronouncing anarchism to be moribund. Indeed, far from being in its death throes, it had become ‘a phoenix in an awakening desert’ .9
The hoped-for transformation of everyday life did not occur in the seventies, but the anarchist influence continued to reveal itself in the many experiments in communal living in Europe and North America which attempted to create free zones within the Corporate State. The movement for workers’ control and self-management echoed the principles of early anarcho-syndicalism. The peace and women’s movements have all been impressed by the anarchist critique of domination and hierarchy, and have adopted to different degrees the anarchist emphasis on direct action and participatory democracy. The Green movement is anarchist in its desire to decentralize the economy and to dissolve personal and political power. Anarchists are influential in the fields of education, trade unions, community planning and culture. The recent trend towards more militarized, centralized and secretive governments has created a counter-movement of people who challenge authority and insist on thinking for themselves.
In the remaining authoritarian socialist regimes, there is a widespread demand for more self-determination and fundamental freedoms. In the independent republics of the former Soviet Union, the role of the State is once again back on the agenda, and young radicals are reading Bakunin and Kropotkin for the first time. Before the tanks rolled in, the student-inspired demonstrations in China in May 1989 showed the creative possibilities of non-violent direct action and led to calls for autonomous unions and self-management on anarchist lines.
In the West, many on the Right have also turned to anarchist thinkers for inspiration. A new movement in favour of `anarcho-capitalism’ has emerged which would like to deregulate the economy and eradicate governmental interference. Although in practice they did the opposite, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain tried ‘to roll back the frontiers of the State’, while in the USA President Ronald Reagan wanted to be remembered principally for getting ‘government off people’s backs’. The Libertarian Party, which pushes these ideas further, became the third largest party in the United States in the iy8os.
It is the express aim of this book to show that there is a profound anarchist tradition which offers many ideas and values that are relevant to contemporary problems and issues. It is not intended, like many studies of anarchism, to be a disguised form of propaganda, attacking Marxist and liberal critics alike, in order simply to establish the historical importance and relevance of anarchism. Nor does it offer, as David Miller’s recent work does, an account of anarchism as an ideology, that is to say, as a comprehensive doctrine expressing the interests of a social group.1°
Demanding the Impossible is primarily a critical history of anarchist ideas and movements, tracing their origins and development from ancient civilizations to the present day. It looks at specific thinkers but it does not consider their works merely as self-contained texts. It tries to place the thinkers and their works in their specific historical and personal context as well as in their broader traditions.
Where one begins and who one includes in such a study is of course debatable. It could be argued that a study of anarchism should begin with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, and be confined only to those subsequent thinkers who called themselves anarchists. Such a study would presumably exclude Godwin, who is usually considered the first great anarchist thinker, as well as Tolstoy, who was reluctant to call himself an anarchist because of the word’s violent associations in his day. It would also restrict itself to certain periods of the lives of key individual thinkers: Proudhon, for instance, lapsed from anarchism towards the end of his life, and Bakunin and Kropotkin only took up the anarchist banner in their maturity.
In general, I define an anarchist as one who rejects all forms of external government and the State and believes that society and individuals would function well without them. A libertarian on the other hand is one who takes liberty to be a supreme value and would like to limit the powers of government to a minimum compatible with security. The line between anarchist and libertarian is thin, and in the past the terms have often been used interchangeably. But while all anarchists are libertarians, not all libertarians are anarchists. Even so, they are members of the same clan, share the same ancestors and bear resemblances. They also sometimes form creative unions.
I have followed in this study the example of Kropotkin who, in his famous article on anarchism for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (tow), traced the anarchist ‘tendency’ as far back as Lao Tzu in the ancient world.” I am keen to establish the legitimate claims of an anarchist tradition since anarchism did not suddenly appear in the nineteenth century only when someone decided to call himself an anarchist. I would also like to uncover what Murray Bookchin has called a ‘legacy of freedom’ and to reconstruct a strand of libertarian thinking which has been covered or disguised by the dominant authoritarian culture in the past.” I have primarily restricted myself to thinkers; poets like Shelley and novelists like Franz Kafka, B. Traven and Ursula K. LeGuin who express a profound anarchist sensibility have been reluctantly left out; and the rich vein of anarchist art is only touched upon.” I have been chiefly motivated in my choice to show the range and depth of anarchist philosophy and to dispel the popular prejudice that the anarchist tradition has not produced any thinkers of the first order.
Demanding the Impossible is therefore intended as a history of anarchist thought and action. While it attempts to place thinkers and ideas in their historical and social context, the emphasis will be on the development of anarchism as a rich, profound and original body of ideas and values. It should therefore be of both historical and philosophical interest. It is not written with any propagandist intentions, but my own sympathies will no doubt shine through.
A study of anarchism will show that the drive for freedom is not only a central part of our collective experience but responds to a deeply felt human need. Freedom is necessary for original thought and creativity. It is also a natural desire for we can see that no animal likes to be caged and all conscious beings enjoy the free satisfaction of their desires. Anarchism further seeks in social life what appears to operate in nature: the call for self-management in society mirrors the self-regulation and selforganization of nature itself.
Anarchism has been dismissed by its opponents as puerile and absurd. Authoritarian Marxists echo Lenin and dismiss it with other forms of ‘leftwing’ communism as an ‘infantile disorder’.‘4 In this respect, they find company with orthodox Freudians who believe that civilization can only exist on the basis of severe repression of instinctual drives. Anarchists, it is suggested, project on to the State all the hatred they felt for parental authority. A serious moral and social philosophy is thus reduced to a badly resolved parricide wish or dismissed as a form of therapy for an infantile neurosis. It is further claimed that anarchism lacks philosophical rigour and that its appeal is fundamentally emotional.
If these criticisms were accurate, it would be difficult to explain why some of the best minds of this century, such as Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, have taken anarchist philosophy so seriously, even if they have not unreservedly endorsed its conclusions. It would also prove hard to account for the widespread influence of anarchism as a social movement this century, especially in Spain, if it did not offer a rational and meaningful response to specific historical conditions. Far from being utopian or atavistic, anarchism grapples directly with the problems faced by individuals and communities in advanced industrial societies as well as in predominantly agricultural ones.
The continued appeal of anarchism can probably be attributed to its enduring affinity with both the rational and emotional impulses lying deep within us. It is an attitude, a way of life as well as a social philosophy. It presents a telling analysis of existing institutions and practices, and at the same time offers the prospect of a radically transformed society.
Above all, it holds up the bewitching ideal of personal and social freedom, both in the negative sense of being free from all external restraint and imposed authority, and in the positive sense of being free to celebrate the full harmony of being. Whatever its future success as a historical movement, anarchism will remain a fundamental part of human experience, for the drive for freedom is one of our deepest needs and the vision of a free society is one of our oldest dreams. Neither can ever be fully repressed; both will outlive all rulers and their States.