Anarchism is not a single idea or a single movement. The word refers to a loosely related network of ideas and movements that emerged during the 19th and 20th centuries. Anarchists have all agreed that humans would be better of without the rule of any state government or centralized political power. But they have never agreed on exactly how and why humans would be better off, or what should follow the overthrow of the centralized state. It is hardly surprising that the anarchist movements have no clear structure that defines them or holds them together. After all, the word anarchy means "without any foundational structure." Anarchists are the most radical of individualists. So they are bound to go off in many different directions.
One of the things anarchists have disagreed about is the role of violence. Some have espoused principled nonviolence; most have not. But anarchism has an important place in the history of the idea of nonviolence, because its views on authority, social change, and direct action for change exerted a sizeable influence on the principled nonviolence tradition in the U.S. Because anarchism is such a varied and vaguely defined trend, any attempt to summarize it must be rather tentative and subjective. Every interpreter will describe the movement somewhat differently. This chapter offers one interpretation of the main ideas that most anarchists have shared, as well as some of the important differences among them.
THE HUMAN CONDITION: POSSIBILITIES AND IMPEDIMENTS
Anarchism centers on two basic beliefs. First, every individual human being is entitled to full freedom and dignity, simply by virtue of being human. Second, because human beings are natural creatures, freedom means the unfettered flow of natural forces within and among us. Most anarchist thought emerges from the interplay between two ideals: the desire for maximum individual freedom and the desire to live according to nature.
For anarchists, a society is only the sum of the individuals who live in that society. Society has no separate existence or effects apart from the actions of individuals. So the idea that we should limit our freedom to abide by society's rules, or protect society's interests, is spurious. It rests on the false premise that there is something called "society" existing apart from and above the individuals who make up society. Since there is nothing but individuals, maximum individual freedom is the only logical ideal.
This does not mean that individuals should act purely randomly or chaotically. Rather it is a call to follow the dictates of nature. Human life, like every other form of life, is a flow of creative energy that follows natural laws. True freedom means being free to develop organically by the laws of nature. By studying nature, we can learn the values that should guide human society.
What do anarchists see when they look at nature? Nature is organic. All its parts are interconnected and constantly interacting, so each part influences all others. Nature is spontaneous. It changes constantly, and the changes emerge naturally from the ever-changing interactions among its parts; the changes are never forced or commanded from above. Because it is organic and spontaneous, nature is diverse. Its changes are constantly producing new forms and ever-greater variety; any attempt to stifle that diversity stifles the flow of life itself. Nature is cooperative. Contrary to the popular Darwinian view, cooperation and not competition drives evolution; every individual creature naturally acts to promote the good of the whole species and the whole ecosystem. This cooperation, like everything else in nature, is spontaneous, not commanded by a central authority. Yet the result is not chaos. When individuals are totally free, they spontaneously create the forms of order that are best for them. So there is no conflict between the individual and the group; what is best for one is best for all.
According to anarchists, these qualities of nature can be applied to human society. When a society is organic, spontaneous, diverse, and cooperative, it is not only most rational but also happiest. To prove this, however, we must break down the huge groupings and institutions most of us live under today. We must live and work in small groups, where each individual can participate in making all the decisions that shape his or her life. In such small groups, the norms come from direct face-to-face relationships. There is no central authority, so all actions can be voluntary. Everyone can see that the group is an organism, in which every individual's acts affect all others. So it is constantly evolving as its constituent members evolve. Therefore diversity flourishes. Everyone can see that what benefits one benefits all. There is no attempt to enforce one person's good over another's. Therefore cooperation flourishes.
Cooperation extends beyond the small group. Groups can relate to each other in the same way that individuals interact: naturally, freely, and spontaneously. When two groups can help each other, they will naturally form mutually helpful connections. On some occasions, those connections may become relatively permanent, so that the union of two or more groups forms a larger group. That larger group may then link up with other larger groups, if it seems natural and mutually beneficial to do so. But these conjoined groups do not create centralized organizations or administrative structures that become ends in themselves. Their connections are not permanently institutionalized or legally binding. They last as long as they are needed to get something done that needs to be done.
In an anarchist community, as in any other, there is work that must be done. But work takes on a whole new meaning. It is not a way to get rich and accumulate material goods, nor to get power over others, nor to exploit nature. Neither is work a way to change the world. Anarchists do not want to change the world, they simply want to be free to live in it. The only goal of their work is to meet basic human needs. But it turns out that relatively few hours of work are needed for that. Beyond basic needs, work is not goal-oriented at all. Rather, it is a spontaneous expression of each person's unique creative impulses. People work because it feels good, because they enjoy it, because they are doing or creating something intrinsically valuable to them.
If it is all so natural and seemingly easy, why don't we already live this way? Why does this sound like such a distant utopian dream? The anarchists have nearly always agreed that the primary problem is centralized political authority, especially as it is embodied in the modern nation-state. The state is the root of all evil. The state, by its very nature, must rely on coercive force for its authority. Every political state claims that it alone has the right to define what kinds of force are legitimate. Logically, then, the state's own use of force is always held to be legitimate. And the state inevitably backs up its claims by the threat of force as the ultimate sanction. In all these ways, the state exercises tyranny over every individual. When individuals challenge the state in the name of their own freedom, the state will always use coercive force to prevent genuine social change. The state cannot make individual freedom its end, because it is always using coercion as its means. Freedom can only be attained through freedom; freedom must be the means as well as the end.
In modern industrial societies, the state is even more coercive because it is so intimately linked with capitalism. State power is obviously used to oppress the rights of workers. More subtly, capitalism infringes on the rights of all people to live fully human lives. It forces the natural diversity of life into its narrow channels of production and consumption. It forces us to measure the quality of life, and all qualities, by strictly economic measures of quantity and efficiency. The enormous size of modern institutions (required by capitalism's economies of scale) requires us to coordinate our lives under someone else's rules. Because we live under unnatural, abstract norms and institutions, all of our relationships become artificial, forced, and ultimately coercive.
Some anarchists extend their critique to include modern technology as a fundamental part of the problem. Technology is oppressive, they argue, for several reasons. It cuts us off from nature. It allows the people in authority to maintain their power. It reduces the mind to goal-oriented, problem-solving technological reasoning and treats that limited form of reasoning as the only source of truth. Thus reason imprisons us. Its strict rules impose uniformity of thought and stifle spontaneity. For these critics of reason, a spontaneous life is more valuable than the artificial categories created by the intellect.
Other anarchists have a much more positive view of reason and technology. Although anarchism has a reputation of being disorderly and irrational, it is largely a product of the 18th century Enlightenment, which proclaimed that human reason can and should discover the orderly laws of nature. Many anarchists believe that reason, when used rightly, enables us to live a more natural life. The right use of reason is science, the most dependable source of truth. These anarchists see themselves applying scientifically proven laws of nature to human society.
Rationalist anarchists and scientists share the Enlightenment ideal of the free individual following his or her own reasoning wherever it may lead, unfettered by any authority. (The first anarchists were particularly concerned to free themselves from what they saw as the oppressive rule of religious authority.) For these anarchists, freedom is the ability to follow the dictates of reason. So they stress the central role of education in helping all people become rational. The positive view of reason often leads to a positive view of technology as the key to keeping a high material standard of living without a centralized economic system. It is also important to note that there has always been a third group of anarchists, who see the whole debate about reason as misguided. They believe that it is possible and necessary to create a new synthesis that will harmonize reason and nature, or mind and body.
Whatever their views about reason and technology, anarchists all agree on resisting the modern industrial state, which emerged in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century. In that era, the movement had its greatest appeal among people who experienced in their own lives the shift from a predominantly rural, agricultural, decentralized society to the highly centralized, urban, industrial culture. It began in Britain and France in the early 19th century. By the latter 19th and early 20th centuries, its center of influence had shifted to eastern and southern Europe and the U.S. West, where industrialization was just beginning and people could recall what pre-industrial life was like. In each of these places, it appealed most to farmers, miners, lumberjacks, and skilled craftsmen, who were closest to pre-modern occupations. These people were most sensitive to the power of the centralized capitalist state, because they lived in places where it was newest and most obviously disruptive of old, established way.
Anarchism is marked by a certain nostalgia for the pre-modern past. Sometimes anarchists tend to romanticize the lives of peasants or "primitives," who supposedly lived a spontaneous life in tune with nature. It is easy for anarchists to project into this imagined past their ideal of small organic communities, free of external constraints. So they may imagine their movement as a return to some kind of primitive purity.
Yet anarchists who are committed to modern science and rationality recognize that modernity is inescapable. This also means that large-scale industry is inescapable. By the early 20th century, anarchism in most places was adapting to industrial society. Increasingly, it focused more on economic than political forces. It developed an ideal of factories run solely by the workers, organized into small producer groups called syndics. Syndicalism became the most popular form of anarchism in the first half of the 20th century. But it still appealed more to skilled workers than to the proletariat on the assembly lines.
ANARCHISM IN ACTION
Analyzing the human problem and imagining creative new solutions is only half of the intellectual project of anarchism. The other half is figuring out how to bring down the all-powerful capitalist state and usher in the new era of organic, natural life. Wherever anarchists go, they tend to be in contact with one group of anticapitalist activists who think they have the answer: the Marxists. Some anarchists want the workers to own and control all property. Some want to abolish all private property completely. But nearly all agree with the Marxists that, one way or another, the workers must be freed from capitalist oppression.
However anarchists do not embrace the Marxist solution, for a number of reasons. Marxists want humans to rule over nature, to manipulate nature for human ends. Therefore they use their work as means to domineering ends. Anarchists want to live in organic harmony with nature and make work an end in itself. Marxists view society as an entity separate from the individuals in it, while anarchists argue that the whole can never be greater than the sum of its parts. Because Marxists deal with society separate from individuals, they expect to change institutions, and ultimately change the world, by working from the top down. So they are eager to use centralized state institutions and the whole apparatus of state power to achieve their ends. To anarchists, of course, this "solution" only perpetuates the problem.
Anarchists claim that most Marxists have an unrealistically rigid view of history. They believe that the capitalist state is withering away; it contains the seeds of its own destruction, which will blossom into revolution, according to iron laws of history. Anarchists, on the other hand, have much more respect for the immense power of the nation-state, the corporate economy, and the authorities who run them. They do not see the capitalist state containing the seeds of its own demise. However, unlike Marxists, anarchists do not think it necessary to create a totally new stage of human life. Rather, they argue that all the resources for a good life for everyone already exist now. Sadly, they are being blocked by the dominant economic and political institutions. All it takes to improve life radically is to remove the blocks.
In the anarchists’ view, removing the blocks does not require a new powerful political structure that can launch a massive assault on the prevailing structure. Rather, anarchists generally believe that the small structures they create will, spontaneously, generate a decentralized alternative society. That society will provide people everything they really need, without relying on the centralized structures of capitalism and the state. Those centralized structures will become irrelevant and gradually fade away.
These differences between Marxists and anarchists on matters of basic principle lead to tactical differences. According to anarchists, Marxists put far too much stress on a vanguard, "the party," organizing to force the contradictions within the existing system to the breaking point. Anarchists fear that such an organized political assault on the state, even if it succeeds, will only lead to a counter-state that will be just as centralized and thus just as oppressive. Their concern is with individuals, not whole systems. So they focus on changing individuals' lives, one by one. To change institutions before changing individuals will only lead to a new form of centralized state power. (By the 1930s, Stalin had given the anarchists a perfect case in point.)
How, then, to change individuals' lives? In fact, anarchists say, there is nothing wrong with individuals' lives now, if they were allowed to live by their own innate natures. Again, it is only a question of removing the artificial structures that prevent people from living according to nature. Some Anarchists would do this by letting nature work within the existing system. Nature wants small organic communities. So anarchists create such communities¾ at home, at work, at school, wherever people gather to share their lives. These small communities create alternatives structures, independent of the state apparatus. As they grow, they gradually erode the power of the state from within.
Other anarchists imagine sweeping away the barriers to nature in one great radical act. Their motto is "direct action," overt resistance that will challenge and weaken the power of the state and all centralized authority. Direct action is embraced not only as a means to social change but as the best way to exercise freedom, to demonstrate the individual's independence from the prevailing system. The best know type of anarchist direct action is the one promoted most by the Syndicalists: a general strike, shutting down the whole apparatus of production and consumption until the authorities capitulate. This would create a season of social chaos and anarchy. Indeed, anarchist critics of technological rationality justify irrational acts as the only way to act spontaneously and get free of the constraints of reason. But that is only a means to an end. Anarchism is vision of new kind of social order. Anarchy can be one means, perhaps the only means, to reach the new order.
Since anarchists insist on individual freedom as both their means and their end, it is hardly surprising that they disagree on the question of tactics. This disagreement leads directly to disagreement about the role of violence. All anarchists agree that violence is ultimately caused by the state and societal institutions, especially under capitalism. As long as our present system continues, there is no way to escape violence. And all agree that when anarchism prevails, violence ends because its causes have ended. But given the prevailing violence in the present, many anarchists justify violence as the only way to create change. They argue that their violent direct action is defensive and unselfish violence, taken only as a last resort to end the selfish violence of the powerful. It is a necessary means to clear the path to a future nonviolent society. Some want violence planned by small groups to start a mass revolt. Some want spontaneous violence done by individuals as direct action, especially efforts to kill state and corporate leaders.
There have always been some anarchists who have committed themselves to nonviolence, arguing that the means must match the end. If free action is the only way to a free society, then nonviolent direct action must be the only way to a nonviolent society. More importantly, perhaps, the whole movement stands in the tradition of resistance that runs from the Anabaptists and Quakers, through the Abolitionists and Thoreau, up to the present day. All anarchists agree that no person should be ruled over by another person. All understand that we can be ruled by another only when we allow ourselves to be ruled by another. All see resistance to illegitimate authority as the foundation of a good and free human life. Because anarchism centers on individual freedom understood in this way, and because it developed techniques of direct action that would later be widely used by nonviolent activists, it has an important place in the history of the idea of nonviolence.
To get some idea of the diversity of anarchism and its influence in the United States, let us take a closer look at two well-known American anarchists from two very different eras: Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.
From the 1890s to 1919, when she was deported, Emma Goldman (1869 – 1940) was the best known anarchist in the United States. As she traveled around the country, speaking and writing, she gave detailed and often eloquent explanations of her views. The goal of anarchism, as she saw it, was for everyone to live the fullest possible life, with "the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual." "Anarchism insists that the center of gravity in society is the individual — that he must think for himself, act freely, and live fully. The aim of Anarchism is that every individual in the world shall be able to do so. If he is to develop freely and fully, he must be relieved from the interference and oppression of others."
When there is no interference from others, there is true equality; everyone has equal freedom and an equal right to full self-development. "Such free display of human energy being possible only under complete individual and social freedom, Anarchism directs its forces against the greatest foe of all social equality; namely, the State, organized authority or statutory law—the dominion of human conduct."
People accept the authority of the state and its laws, Goldman claimed, because they are afraid of other people: "At its base is the doctrine that man is evil, vicious, and too incompetent to know what is good for him. On this all government and oppression is built." However, when people are free from external interference, they discover that they need not fear others, because free people naturally want to help each other: "The belief in freedom assumes that human beings can co-operate. They do it even now to a surprising extent, or organized society would be impossible. If the devices by which men can harm one another, such as private property, are removed, and if the worship of authority can be discarded, co-operation will be spontaneous and inevitable." When people are most free to develop their own individuality, they are also most free to cooperate. Then they can discover "the social bonds which knit men together, and which are the true foundation of a normal social life."
In sum, according to Goldman, "the sense of justice and equality, the love of liberty and of human brotherhood [are] fundamentals of the real regeneration of society." Regeneration seems so hard because equality, liberty, and brotherhood are stifled by a "whole complex of authority and institutional domination which strangles life." This complex includes the interlocking powers of government, capitalism, religion, and social convention.
Even in a democracy, government blocks the path to freedom: "It matters not whether it is government by divine right or majority rule. In every instance its aim is the absolute subordination of the individual." As long as the state depends on capitalism, the political system depends on the money of the rich. If truly good people tried to get elected to office, they would "either remain true to their political faith and lose their economic support, or they would cling to their economic master and be utterly unable to do the slightest good. The political arena leaves one no alternative, one must either be a dunce or a rogue." So there is no chance of gaining true freedom by constitutional means: "Man has as much liberty as he is willing to take. Anarchism therefore stands for direct action, the open defiance of, and resistance to all laws and restrictions, economic, social, and moral."
Goldman argued that liberty must be taken in the economic as well as the political realm. Freedom "is only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work." In an anarchist society, "economic arrangements must consist of voluntary productive and distributive associations, gradually developing into free communism." So she joined the Marxists in attacking the oppressive features of industrial capitalism. But she went beyond the Marxists when she insisted that capitalism and the state are so intimately intertwined that both must be resisted together.
Goldman went beyond many other anarchists when she insisted on another crucial realm where people must be free, perhaps the most crucial of all for her: the realm of love. "The most vital right is the right to love and be loved," she wrote. No one can express all their latent powers and potentialities freely unless they can freely give and receive love: "Love in freedom is the only condition of a beautiful life.…Whether love last but one brief span of time or for an eternity, it is the only creative, inspiring, elevating basis for a new race, a new world."
She was especially sensitive to the freedom to love because she was a woman. Like so many women of her day, she fought to end the oppressive restrictions that men imposed upon them. However, she rankled other feminists with her criticisms of their movement. In her view, women who demanded only the vote, equal legal rights, and access to all fields of work with equal pay were simply asking to participate fully in the oppressive state system. They were, in effect, legitimizing and reinforcing that system. Therefore, they were accepting the strict limits that society placed on women’s ability to give and receive love freely:
Emancipation, as understood by the majority of its adherents and exponents, is of too narrow a scope to permit the boundless love and ecstasy contained in the deep emotion of the true woman, sweetheart, mother, in freedom. … Until woman has learned to defy them all, to stand firmly on her own ground and to insist upon her own unrestricted freedom, to listen to the voice of her nature, whether it call for life’s greatest treasure, love for a man, or her most glorious privilege, the right to give birth to a child, she cannot call herself emancipated. How many emancipated women are brave enough to acknowledge that the voice of love is calling, wildly beating against their breasts, demanding to be heard, to be satisfied. … The greatest shortcoming of the emancipation of the present day lies in its artificial stiffness and its narrow respectabilities, which produce an emptiness in woman’s soul that will not let her drink from the fountain of life. … To give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of woman’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.
Goldman scandalized audiences when she talked about love, because she made it quite clear that she meant, above all, romantic and sexual love, the kind of love that produces babies. She argued passionately that women should be free to love men without marrying them, to love more than one man at once, and to have children with men that they loved, whether or not they were married to those men. Indeed, she saw marriage as a major impediment to love. Most women feel forced to marry, she explained, because only a husband can provide them with economic security and social respectability. In return for those privileges, they must offer to their husbands their bodies and the children their bodies produce.
The ultimate price they pay is to sacrifice their freedom to love: "Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy; love, the defier of all laws, of all conventions; love, the freest, the most powerful molder of human destiny; how can such an all-compelling force be synonymous with that poor little State- and Church-begotten weed, marriage?" Love is genuine only if it is freely given, Goldman insisted. When charged with promoting "free love," she replied: "As if love is anything but free.…Man has conquered whole nations, but all his armies could not conquer love. Man has chained and fettered the spirit, but he has been utterly helpless before love.…Love has the magic power to make of a beggar a king. Yes love is free; it can dwell in no other atmosphere. In freedom, it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely."
Goldman’s passionate defense of free love and free motherhood reveals the romantic streak that her critics, and some of her supporters, often failed to see. It also reveals the rebellious streak that marked her whole life. But her rebelliousness was not merely a psychological trait. It was also part and parcel of her theory of anarchism. She explained that, since liberty is every person’s natural right, "it cannot be given; it cannot be conferred by any law or government. The need of it, the longing for it, is inherent in the individual. Disobedience to every form of coercion is the instinctive expression of it. Rebellion and revolution are the more or less conscious attempt to achieve it." Precisely because rebellion requires breaking laws, it is a sure path to freedom: "Everything illegal necessitates integrity, self-reliance, and courage. In short, it calls for free, independent spirits, for [as Thoreau said] ‘men who are men, and who have a bone in their backs which you cannot pass your hand through.’"
Every time someone breaks a law, they are refusing to consent to the legitimacy of that law and the legitimacy of the government that promulgated the law. They are acting as if the state is irrelevant in their life. Thus they are weakening the state’s power and taking one step closer to its collapse, because "no government can exist without the consent of the people, consent open, tacit or assumed." In Goldman’s view, withdrawing consent from the state is an act of freedom. It removes the barrier to the free expression of one’s own fullest potential. It is opens the door to one’s own unique creativity, spontaneity, and love. Taking the state out means letting the life force in.
Emma Goldman said that people were often frustrated, because she did not described specifically how things would be operated under Anarchism" But she could not offer such a description, she explained, because "Anarchism can not consistently impose an iron-clad program or method on the future. " Anarchism "leave posterity free to develop its own particular systems, in harmony with its needs. Our most vivid imaginations can not foresee the potentialities of a race set free from external restraints. How, then, can any one assume to map out a line of conduct for those to come?"
One topic that she left especially vague was the use of violence. She had no doubt that anarchism was ultimately the antidote to all violence, because the state itself was the ultimate source of all violence. She defined anarchism as "the philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary." The methods of anarchism were always based on "emancipation from all oppressive and limiting forces; in short, by libertarian principles. The methods of the State, on the contrary—of the Bolshevik State as of every government—were based on coercion, which in the course of things necessarily developed into systematic violence, oppression, and terrorism."
Although coercion always leads to violence, in Goldman’s analysis, not every act of violence is meant to coerce. Anarchists can do violence in order to express their freedom from the state, or to trigger a radical social change that will undermine the power of the state. Yet as she understood anarchism, it does not require or command violence. Anarchists who planned assassinations and bombings "were impelled, not by the teachings of Anarchism, but by the tremendous pressure of conditions making life unbearable to their sensitive natures." Their acts were "the violent recoil from violence, the last desperate struggle of outraged and exasperated human nature for breathing space and life."
Moreover, it makes little sense to focus on anarchist violence while ignoring the much greater state violence: "Resistance to tyranny is man’s highest ideal. So long as tyranny exists, in whatever form, man’s deepest aspiration must resist it as inevitably as man must breathe. Compared with the wholesale violence of capital and government, political acts of violence are but a drop in the ocean." That was her rationale, no doubt, when she helped her lover, Alexander Berkman, plan his attempted assassination of a U.S. Steel executive in 1892. (Berkman spent fourteen years in jail for that failed attempt.)
However, after Goldman was deported from the U.S. and spent two years in the fledgling Soviet Union, she came to doubt the efficacy of violent revolution. She saw the Soviet leaders merely replacing one centralized state authority with another, and using massive violence to do it. Reflecting on this experience, she wrote:
It is one thing to employ violence in combat as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary.…The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all. Even if it accomplishes what it sets out to do—which it rarely does—it brings so many evils in its wake as to defeat its original aim.… If we can undergo changes in every other method of dealing with the social issues we will also have to learn to change in the methods of revolution. It think it can be done. If not, I shall relinquish my belief in revolution."
She told Alexander Berkman that "violence in whatever form never has and probably never will bring constructive results."
Goldman recognized that the Soviets had embraced violence because they assumed the principle that a good and justifies any means to attain it. "There is no greater fallacy than the belief that aims and purposes are on thing, while methods and tactics are another.…All human experience teaches that methods and means cannot be separated from the ultimate aim. The means employed become, through individual habit and social practice, part and parcel of the final purpose."
It is not surprising that Goldman eventually endorsed nonviolence. Her anarchist views embraced the fundamental premises of the nonviolent abolitionists. She believed that all people should be treated as equals because no one should have authority over another (though she stripped away the religious foundation of this belief and argued for it on strictly rational grounds). She believed that when people do have authority over others they are coercing others, and thus they are bound to do violence. She believed that no one could achieve right ends by wrong means.
Her anarchism also foreshadowed important ideas that would later shape the nonviolence tradition. She believed that all power is based on consent. No one can impose their authority upon another. People are ruled by others only because they allow themselves to be ruled by others. It is always possible to withdraw consent, to refuse to be ruled. True freedom means withdrawing consent from all human authority. If enough people withdraw consent from a government or authority, its power will vanish and it will fall of its own weight.
Many anarchists shared Goldman’s analysis of power. They followed this line of reasoning to the same conclusions that Thoreau reached in "Civil Disobedience." (Many recognized their debt to Thoreau. Fewer realized that these ideas could be traced all the way back to The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, written by the French philosopher Étienne de la Boétie in 1548.) Resistance to illegitimate authority is the foundation of a good and free human life. Social change comes most effectively not from working within the legal structure, but by acting freely—doing what one sees as right—outside the laws. In the twentieth century, this concept of "direct action" would be combined with other facets of nonviolence. The resulting ideas would be fully articulated and turned into fundamental principles of the tradition.
Near the end of her life, though, Emma Goldman showed that she valued revolution, by any means, above nonviolence. When Spanish anarchists, who had gained control of parts of Spain, were attacked and fought back violently, she actively supported and promoted their cause in the Spanish Civil War.
In his youth, Murray Bookchin (1921 - ) was a factory worker, a union organizer, and a Marxist. He never abandoned the Marxist idea that people will not be truly free until private property is abolished and all goods are distributed solely according to need. However, by the early 1950s, it was clear to him that Marxism had ceased to be the revolutionary force he and so many others had hoped it would be. The Soviet Union had not fulfilled the promise of a state truly run by and for the working class. In the U.S. and other western industrialized nations, capitalism had raised the living standards of most workers and coopted revolutionary workers movements. There was no longer any clear line separating capitalists from workers in the class struggle. The prospect of revolutionary class struggle was rapidly vanishing.
Bookchin turned to the anarchist tradition as a source of revolutionary thinking. He seized especially on the idea that the revolution should not be about gaining control of the state, but dissolving the state. But he lived in a world quite different from the world of the earlier anarchist writers. Most people now lived in big cities and suburbs. They were as likely to work in offices or stores as in farms or factories. Their lives were dominated by centers of power organized in huge anonymous bureaucracies: corporations, labor unions. the military, universities, media conglomerates, etc. Government’s role was now to coordinate all these bureaucracies. "The state" was the one huge conglomerate created by the interlocking of all these institutions.
Bookchin envisioned a world in which power would be decentralized and returned to the people, by dismantling all these institutions. He came to see the structure of capitalism, with society divided between capitalists and workers, as just one example of a larger structure: the hierarchical structure, with society divided between dominators and dominated. Capitalism is only one of many forms that domination can take.
His most creative breakthrough came when he recognized the indissoluble link between human society and the natural environment. Humans are part of nature. Human consciousness evolved in the same way that every other organism’s unique features evolved. Consciousness is part of nature. But it has the unique ability to develop a concept of "nature," to think about its relation to nature. That gives humans a special responsibility for think about what is happening to nature and to take care of the natural environment.
As early as 1952 (far earlier than most other anarchists or non-anarchists) Bookchin began warning that humans were failing in this responsibility. The earth’s environment, and the bodies of all people on earth, were being poisoned by industrial chemicals. "The principal motives for chemicals," he argued, were "shaped neither by the needs of the public nor the limits of nature, but by the exigencies of profit and competition." Generalizing from this point, he wrote: "The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world." Why? Because people who want to dominate each other also want to dominate nature. When people believe that humans should dominate nature, they soon come to believe that they can generate wealth only by dominating nature.
This idea was especially dangerous when people recognized the fact of nature’s scarcity. There simply was not enough to go around. So it was easy to believe that competition was inevitable. From this, it was another easy step to believe that competition was good, that it was the only way to encourage people to work their hardest and create the most wealth out of the natural resources at hand. So people came to believe that competition was necessary to create the most wealth out of nature. Of course, competition meant winners and losers, dominators and dominated. "In order to harness the natural world, it has been argued for ages, it is necessary to harness human beings as well.…The myth of a ‘stingy’ nature has always been used to justify the ‘stinginess’ of exploiters in their harsh treatment of the exploited." At the same time, the same ideas were leading people to treat the natural environment very harshly, too. This explains the direct link between hierarchies and destruction of the environment.
Bookchin went on to point out that, by destroying the natural environment, capitalism was creating an ultimate limit to its expansion and sowing the seeds of its own destruction. A revolution in human society would some day have to come, when humans could no longer survive physically in the polluted environment that the centralized power of capitalism had created. The only way to avoid environmental catastrophe, he insisted, was to let people reclaim control over their own lives in small, decentralized units. Humanity now faces the stark simple "alternatives of anarchism or annihilation."
If decentralization must happen some day, to save the human race and the earth’s biosphere, why not begin it now? That was the essential argument that launched Bookchin’s career as the most influential American anarchist in the second half of the twentieth century.
In developing his innovative approach, he allied himself with the side of anarchism that saw great value in rationality and technology. By the latter half of the twentieth century, he insisted, technology had advanced so much that everyone could have all the goods they would ever need. The principle of nature’s scarcity, so basic to human civilization in the past, is simply no longer true. The end of scarcity meant that humanity could now be free from want, free from any lack of necessary material goods. This fact deprives the capitalist ruling class of its familiar excuses for domination. It also eliminates the need for arduous and tedious labor. Thus technology gives everyone enough free time to participate fully in community affairs and to enjoy life: "The human relationships and psyches of individuals in a post-scarcity society must fully reflect the freedom, security, and self-expression that this abundance makes possible. Post-scarcity society, in short, is the fulfillment of the social and cultural potentialities latent in a technology of abundance."
Technology also allows every community to rely totally on renewable resources for its energy. However, "to use solar, wind, and tidal power effectively, the megalopolis must be decentralized." Bookchin called for decentralized, small-scale communities in which economic life would be totally cooperative and communal. Each community would be tailored to the distinctive features of its own natural environment. Humans would become sensitive to those features and adapt their technology to nature, rather they trying to make technology control nature. They would learn to deal with nature "not like playing chess but like steering a boat."
When Murray Bookchin began writing about his anarchist views in the 1950s, he was a lone voice. The anarchist tradition in the U.S. had waned after World War I; after World War II, it seemed to be virtually extinct. In the early cold war years, it took great courage to express anarchist ideas. Since anarchism was widely associated with communism, it was suppressed by mainstream American society, which was quick to attack anything related to communism. Anarchist tendencies were also suppressed by the communists, who were under severe attack and trying to keep their own movement alive. Concern about the environment, from any perspective, was virtually unheard of. Bookchin could not know that, by the late 1960s, his thought would become appealing and influential to a new generation of young people creating a counterculture.
Eventually, the environmental concerns of the "’60s generation," which Bookchin had pioneered, became part of popular culture. But in the late twentieth century he criticized the environmental movement because it was not radical enough. It tended to view the environment as a collection of "resources" placed at the service of people. Its warning was only that these resources should be controlled and manipulated more wisely, so that they would last longer.
Calling his own outlook "ecology," he explained that it "interprets interdependencies (social and psychological as well as natural) nonhierarchically. Ecology denies that nature can be interpreted from a hierarchical viewpoint. Moreover, it affirms that diversity and spontaneous development are ends in themselves, to be respected in their own right." He based his ecology on the principle that "each form of life has unique place in the balance of nature and its removal from the ecosystem could imperil the stability of the whole."
Bookchin also criticized ecofeminism and the "deep ecology" informed by spirituality because, in his view, they denigrated reason and science, which he believed were crucial to creating a good society. He was equally critical of what he called "lifestyle anarchism." As he described it (perhaps not wholly accurately), this movement glorified the individual who had broken free of all social structures to express completely his or her deepest desires. To Bookchin, this kind of freedom is an illusion, since the individual can never be free of the social structures that condition each person’s life. The task is, rather, to change those structures so that they support and nurture a more genuine kind of freedom. "It must be a social anarchism that seeks freedom through structure and mutual responsibility, not through a vaporous, nomadic ego that eschews the preconditions for social life."
"Lifestyle anarchism," he argued, values passion and intuition above reason. But reason is necessary as "a guide to standards of progress and regress, necessity and freedom, good and evil." Bookchin’s social anarchism "celebrates the thinking human mind without in any way denying passion, ecstasy, imagination, play, and art," the values celebrated by "lifestyle anarchism." Social anarchism "is committed to rationality while opposing the rationalization of experience; to technology, while opposing the ‘megamachine’; to social institutionalization, while opposing class rule and hierarchy; to a genuine politics based upon the confederal coordination of municipalities or communes by the people in direct face-to-face democracy, while opposing parliamentarianism and the state."
Unlike some varieties of "lifestyle anarchism," Bookchin did not call for a return to the state of nature. There would be no benefit in destroying urban life and vainly trying to return to nature. In his vision, town and country are not opposed. Rather, town and country must be skillfully blended, so that the best of human technology could be wisely integrated into a natural setting on a human scale.
Nor did he call for a return to a pre-urban tribal past. Tribal societies often over-used nature, he pointed out. They had no concept of nature and therefore no conscious relationship with nature. So they could not make free choices about their relation to their environment. That is why they felt controlled by supernatural forces. Bookchin praised the era of the Enlightenment, with its stress on reason as the source of truth, partly because it gave humanity a concept of nature. For the first time, people felt empowered to choose freely how they would relate to their natural environment. However, he did see great value in remembering on studying the tribal past. It could be a way to recognize "the past possibilities that remain unfulfilled, such as the far-reaching importance of community, confederation, self-management of the economy, and a new balance between humanity and nature."
The balance between humanity and nature was the central thread in all of Bookchin’s writing. In many different ways, he argued that the only way to save the environment is to find that proper balance; the only way to find the balance is to create genuine democracy; the only way to create democracy is through anarchism.
"The most creative feature of traditional anarchism," according to Bookchin, "is its commitment to four basic tenets: a confederation of decentralized municipalities; an unwavering opposition to statism; a belief in direct democracy; and a vision of a libertarian communist society." For him, direct democracy required what he called "libertarian municipalism." It would be "built around intimate groups of brothers and sisters—affinity groups—whose ability to act in common is based on initiative, on convictions freely arrived at, and on a deep personal involvement, not on a bureaucratic apparatus fleshed out by a docile membership and manipulated from above by a handful of all-knowing leaders."
The affinity groups coordinate with each other when needed, but always voluntarily. In each urban neighborhood or rural town, all of the affinity groups would assemble together to debate and decide upon every aspect of their community’s life, including the distribution of property.
People would find their real freedom in this ongoing rational discussion of their shared needs. Freedom depends on a real ability to make free choices in every aspect of life and act upon those choices. But Bookchin emphasized that free choice does not mean choosing what is best merely for oneself. Real freedom means the freedom to choose what is best for one’s whole community: "The individual is, indeed, truly free and attains true individuality when he or she is guided by a rational, humane, and high-minded notion of the social and communal good."
For "libertarian municipalism" to work, economic and social and political life would have to be scaled down to human dimensions. Most things would be done locally, in small communities where everyone knows everyone else and understands everyone’s needs. The local assemblies would communicate with each other when matters of larger concern arise. They would form a series of confederations, chains of association that would grow larger and larger to deal with problems on a growing scale. But the confederations would always be voluntary, organic, and constantly changing. They would have no permanent structure, and nothing would be imposed from above. It would act independently of the state, and in many cases simply ignore the state. As this process of confederated association grows, initiated from the grass roots, it will wield enough power to challenge the power of state. Eventually, the state and its institutions will simply become irrelevant to people’s lives. This, according to Bookchin, is the only way to fulfill Marx’s prediction that the state will wither away.
Murray Bookchin has been criticized in some anarchist circles because he has so often done just what we might expect an anarchist to do. He has taken staunchly independent stands, stated his views freely and firmly, and vented his opposition to other views with full force, even when it led to antagonism and schisms in the anarchist community. At times, some of his critics say, he has misunderstood or misrepresented the varieties of anarchism that he criticized. However, even those who disagreed with him and felt the sting of his critiques often paid their respects to him. They recognized that he kept the tradition of anarchist theory alive through an era when it otherwise seemed virtually defunct. He kept it alive by working with it creatively, adapting it to new circumstances, and thereby renewing it. He anticipated many of the key ideas that came to be associated with "the ‘60s." For the rest of the twentieth century, he kept up a vibrant, often contentious, dialogue with younger people who were inspired by his ideas and by his example of always bringing something new and fresh to the anarchist tradition.
Notes to Chapter 5: The Anarchists