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You are here: Home > Env Stds/English 243: Introduction to Nature Writing > The Anarchist Tradition

The Anarchist Tradition

by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:58 AM

Don't believe everything you read in newspapers. Using violence to cause chaos is just a minor part of the anarchist tradition. Here is a very brief overview of a complex tradition.

To say that anarchism suffers from bad press is an understatement. There are two popular (mis)understandings of this term, both negative. In the first, anarchism is characterized by violent disorder, resulting from the lack of order that an authoritarian government creates and sustains. This authority may be laws or dictatorship, and the order may be said to benefit the people or only those in power, but in any case, government and the order it imposes is seen as necessary. The second conception of anarchy is dysfunctional lack of cooperation, exemplified by a group that cannot decide what to do because everyone is pursuing her or his own agenda. Either there are no rules by which they can come agreement or they are ignored. This is a more comic form of disorder, but the assumption here too is that some kind of imposed order is needed.

While anarchism is generally thought of as a social theory, theories of human nature are usually involved, either implicitly or explicitly. This is seen in the two misconceptions of anarchism just mentioned. Implied in those views of anarchism is the belief that human nature is self-interested and uncooperative, and in the first instance human nature is usually seen as naturally violent. The social theory that results from that assumption is that, just as we need reason to impose itself on emotion, instinct, and bodily desires, we need government to impose order on groups of individuals. Government, in particular the State, is necessary for order, justice, and for human well-being.

Anarchism rejects these theories of human nature and government, and with minor (but notorious) exceptions, anarchism is different from the popular conceptions of the term. Most simply and fundamentally, we can describe anarchism as therejection of the State and other authoritarian, hierarchical social structures. These are viewed as unnatural; they do not arise from our individual or social nature but instead are created by certain social groups for their own benefit. In fact, authoritarian social structures run counter to our nature. They are also considered unnecessary to social order and human well-being. Indeed, authoritarian, hierarchical social structures are seen as that which creates disorder, injustice, and suffering; they are the problem, not the solution. And because they are unnatural and inherently disorderly, at a large scale (e.g., the State) they inevitably must be founded upon violence.

But there is no single, accepted theory of anarchism. There are many variables involved, resulting in many different anarchist philosophies and practices. To simplify, however, we can distinguish three major types of anarchism: individualist, anarcho-syndicalist, and communitarian. In individualist anarchism, the least common and important, the liberty of the individual is seen as paramount. Rules and authority, whether it comes from the State or small groups, are an imposition on that liberty. The first great theorist of this type of individualistic, “egoist” anarchism was Max Stirner (1806-1856). A major influence on his thinking was classical liberalism: we are inherently free, rational individuals. People flourish most when we are allowed to live by our reasoned self-interest. This view is at the root of contemporary libertarianism and is the guiding principle of the Libertarian Party. It also informs the related movement called “anarcho-capitalism.” In this social theory, self-interest is and ought to be our main motivation, and society works best when we are free to compete with each other; it is a contemporary form of Social Darwinism. Private property is central to the protection of that individual liberty, and privatization of the public sphere is the major remedy to our problems. (The Cato Institute is a well-funded think tank promoting this view.)

There are environmentally-related versions of anarcho-capitalism: we should keep our environment healthy and sustainable by turning public lands (national parks, wilderness areas) into private property, which will then be defended by the self-interest of the owners. The emphasis on individual liberty and the centrality of private property is found in the works of the famous nature writer Edward Abbey, although he rejects the industrialism, consumerism, and concern with wealth that goes with anarcho-capitalism.

I mention this individualist version of anarchism to point out the diversity in the tradition, but it is a minor form of the tradition. For the most part, anarchism is collectivist oriented, aimed at the well-being of the group. It is influenced more by socialist and communist traditions than classical liberalism, although it strongly rejects the authoritarian socialist state that Marx, Lenin, and others called for. Collectivist anarchism, which we could call mainstream anarchism, calls for a cooperative, non-hierarchical society, based on democratic participation and voluntary collaboration. This means that there are guides to behavior but no one who stands above with authoritarian power. There are rules but no rulers.

There are two main types of collectivist anarchism: anarcho-syndicalism and communal (or utopian) anarchism. Anarcho-syndicalism is an anarchist form of socialism. Its focus is primarily the workers in an urban, industrial society, and the goal is an economic system in which workers control production through democratically-run unions. Individual unions form a network with each other across regions and across national borders, and these networks are the core of the social order, replacing both capitalist corporations and the nation-state.

The most famous theorist of this form of anarchism was the Russian Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876). American proponents of anarcho-syndicalism include Emma Goldman (1869-1940) and Joe Hill (1879-1915). Anarcho-syndicalism was the impetus behind the radical union International Workers of the World (IWW, or “wobblies”), which Gary Snyder mentions as a part of his family history. Anarcho-syndicalism was also a principal force in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and it gained substantial power in certain areas of Spain before being betrayed by Marxist-Leninists and crushed by the fascist Franco. Lenin criticized anarcho-syndicalist socialism, in large part because it rejected Lenin’s call for an authoritarian “proletarian state.”

In this form of anarchism, spirituality is usually considered a distraction from political analysis and direct confrontation of the economic powers. Social practices are judged for their utilitarian effect on the poor and marginalized, rather than on moral grounds. As a result, some of the anarchists of this type supported violence, either accepting it as an unfortunate but necessary evil, or embracing it as a creative social act. An extreme form of this view, labeled “propaganda of the deed,” was practiced between 1894 and 1901. It sought to assassinate political leaders, and they were successful is killing the President of France, Empress of Austria, the King of Italy, and U.S. President William McKinley. However, this tactic was unpopular among most all anarchists and not at all characteristic of the movement. And while some anarchists have supported violence as necessary to the dissolution of the state, almost all oppose war, which they saw as characteristic of large-scale government. In the famous words of Randolph Bourne, “war is the health of the state”: it is essential to its nature and necessary for its power.

The other type of anarchism – and the one directly relevant to bioregionalism – is sometimes called “utopian” (often as a derogatory term) but which I prefer to call “ communitarian.” I use this term because the principal goal is to form alternative communities, ones that are based on a deep sense of communal bond and responsibility. Cooperation, mutualism, and egalitarianism are the guiding principles, as opposed to hierarchy and authority or individual self-interest. The only political structure beyond the village would be voluntary federations of autonomous communities.

The Russian Petr Kropotkin (1842-1921) is often considered the major proponent of this view. He emphasized the ideal of locally autonomous village communes. While Bakunin was primarily concerned with the collective, egalitarian ownership of economic production by workers, Kropotkin focused more on the egalitarian distribution of goods: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. Kropotkin was a geographer and an evolutionist who claimed that evolution was characterized primarily not by competition but by “mutual aid,” the title of his famous book. Human nature is naturally inclined toward solidarity and cooperation. Thus free cooperative communities were natural to humans, and necessary to order and well-being.

Because this ideal involves a type of society that departs radically from the urban, industrial order, cultural change and life-style become important. Morality and spirituality are central to this change, while political and economic analysis of existing institutions is less important than in anarcho-syndicalism. Communitarian anarchism has been dubbed “utopian” by anarcho-syndicalists because it attempts to form an ideal society separate from the existing order rather than create an egalitarian, collectivist approach within the existing industrial economy.

The most famous exponent of a spiritually-based communitarian anarchism was the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. His radical view of Christianity, which centered on both anarchism and nonviolence, influenced another spiritually based social reformer: Gandhi. Gandhi’s ideal of a small-scale, village-based, participatory society can be considered one form of anarchism. The most long-standing institutionalized communitarian anarchism is Quakerism. Although they have not developed a tradition of alternative communities the way the Amish have, there governance and decision-making process is emblematic of communitarian anarchism: a deep commitment to a communal bond, based in spiritual belief, in which individual freedom is matched (as it is not in libertarianism) by strong sense of responsibility to the group. The goal is not personal liberty but moral behavior that affirms both the integrity of the individual and the cohesiveness of the group, guided by a shared spiritual reality (“the Light Within”) that is the ultimate authority. Hierarchy and dogma are rejected as impediments to each person’s openness to the Inner Light.

To support its ideals, communitarian anarchism, more than the other forms, relies on particular beliefs about human nature, spiritual reality, and/or a philosophy of nature. The dominant ideology of the West holds that human nature is such that external authority is necessary for order and justice. Without it, they say, we end up in individualistic chaos and destructive disorder, which characterizes anarchy. Communitarian anarchism’s beliefs about human nature, religious reality, the way nature operates suggest a third alternative: social cooperation is possible without hierarchical authority and imposed order. We are naturally inclined toward harmony and cooperation (“mutual aid”). It is the artificiality and authoritarianism of the state that creates alienation, hatred, and disorder.

This makes understanding their views of human nature, the natural world, and spiritual reality crucial to recognizing the source of their ideas and their rationale for anarchism, and it is central to an authentic evaluation of their views. There are many different religious and social bases for communitarian anarchism. For Tolstoy, anarchism was based on his conviction that “the Kingdom of God Is Within You” – the title of one of his books. For Kropotkin, it was the mutualism of evolution that makes our nature naturally cooperative.

A number of contemporary American anarchists, including those associated with environmentalism and nature writing, have looked to Asian cultures. Kenneth Rexroth, nature poet and cultural critic, drew on both Buddhism and Catholic mysticism to formulate an anarchism based on the belief of an inner flame of contemplation and love, which governments seeks to destroy. Gary Snyder’s Buddhism holds that we all have Buddha Nature, characterized by compassion based on the realization that we are all profoundly interrelated. Snyder also draws on Chinese philosophy of nature, in which all of nature, including humans, are spontaneously inclined to harmony. Both humans and the nonhuman natural world are healthiest and most orderly if left “wild.” Ecological science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin bases her anarchism on similar Chinese Daoist views, particularly as it is found in the ancient classic Daodejing (Tao-te-ching). Her novels suggest how anarchist societies might function.

Edward Abbey’s anarchism is somewhat of an exception. Both spirituality and communalism are less prevalent in his thought. There is a generalized spiritual dimension to his views (he claimed he was neither a theist nor an atheist but an “earthiest”), and he periodically extolled small communal societies as the ideal, but his defense of anarchism is strongly individualistic, and he supported the idea of ecotage: violence against the machines of environmental destruction. Wendell Berry’s views are, at the least, anarchistically inclined, with a great distrust for any large-scale organization, from government to grand social movements. His views, however, are more clearly in line with the populist agrarian movement.

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by David Barnhill last modified Aug 14, 2010 09:58 AM