A solstice gift: info on anarchism
Here’s my solstice gift for you: the notes I’ve been slaving over for the past 2 weeks on Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall, 2010. I’m also going to put these notes — and some more on anarchism in the coming days, 2012 solstice goddesses willing, up as pages under “Possibilities.” Enjoy! I think it makes a lot of sense.
The word “anarchy,” conjuring up as it does for many terrorist bombings or the collapse of law and order, has had a bad press. In fact, only a tiny minority of anarchists have used terror as a revolutionary strategy, mostly in the 1890s, when there was a string of spectacular bombings and political assassinations. Over the long haul, anarchism has been far less violent than other political creeds, and certainly less violent than the states it criticizes. Anarchists believe that states and governments, theoretically intended to prevent injustice, are actually the main forces perpetuating oppression by force. They think people can live together freely and peacefully without states or formal governments – that this is, in fact, our natural state.
The historic anarchist movement had its high points during two of the major revolutions of the 20th century – the Russian and the Spanish. In the Russian Revolution, anarchists tried to give real meaning to the slogan “All Power to the Soviets [workers’ councils],” and in many places, particularly in the Ukraine, they established free communes. These efforts were short-lived, however – the Bolsheviks, believing in the need for the “dictatorship of the proletariat” to take over the state before it could “wither away,” crushed the Russian anarchists in the early 1920s.
The greatest anarchist experiment took place in Spain in the 1930s. At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, peasants, especially in Andalusia, Aragon, and Valencia, set up a network of collectives in thousands of villages. In Catalonia, the most highly developed industrial part of Spain, anarchists managed the industries through workers’ collectives based on the principles of self-management. But the intervention of fascist Italy and Germany on the side of the far-right leader Franco and his nationalist rebels, and the Soviet policy of funneling arms through the Spanish communists, doomed the experiment. Communists and anarchists fought each other in Barcelona in 1937, and Franco triumphed soon after, establishing a 36-year dictatorship. Millions of Spanish anarchists were killed or imprisoned, or went underground. The Second World War which followed shattered the international anarchist movement.
The ’60s saw a revival in a diffuse form, since many of the themes of the New Left – decentralization, workers’ control, and participatory democracy – were central anarchist concerns. The growth of a counterculture based on individuality, community, and joy also expressed an anarchist sensibility, if not self-conscious knowledge. It became possible, once again, to “demand the impossible.”
Every state is a despotism, be the despot one or many. Max Stirner
Though anarchism by its very nature is anti-dogmatic, anarchists share certain beliefs and concerns, including a particular view of human nature, a critique of the existing order, a vision of a free society, and ideas on how to achieve it. All anarchists reject the legitimacy of the state and external government, and condemn imposed political authority, hierarchy, and domination. They believe society can be decentralized and self-regulating, consisting of a federation of voluntary associations of free and equal individuals.
The anarchist sensibility can be seen in the Taoism of ancient China and in classical Greek thought, and was expressed in the great peasant revolts of the Middle Ages and by extreme left factions of the English Revolution. It emerged as a conscious ideology at the end of the 18th century in response to the rise of centralized states, nationalism, industrialization, and capitalism.
The 19th century witnessed a flood of anarchist theory and the development of an anarchist movement. The first person to call himself an anarchist was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon of France, who insisted that only a society without artificial government could restore natural order: “Just as man seeks justice in equality, society seeks order in anarchy.” He launched the great slogans “Anarchy is Order” and “Property is Theft.”
The Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin provided a charismatic example of anarchy in action, while his compatriot Peter Kropotkin developed anarchism into a systematic social philosophy based on scientific principles. Though he didn’t publicly identify as an anarchist because of the word’s association with violence, the novelist Leo Tolstoy also created an anarchist critique of the state and property based on the teachings of Christ.
The anarchist mainstream is occupied by social anarchists – mutualists, collectivists, communists, and syndicalists, differing mainly on the issue of economic organization. All of these could exist side by side in the same society.
Individualist anarchists worry that a collectivist society will lead to the tyranny of the group, while social anarchists try to achieve a maximum degree of personal freedom in community, believing that only in community can an individual realize his or her full potential.
Pacifist anarchists see the state and government as the ultimate expressions of organized violence, involving legalized aggression, war mass murder, conscription slavery, and the soldier as a hired assassin. They argue that it’s impossible to bring about a free and peaceful society by the use of violence, since means inevitably influence ends. Their preferred tactics are nonviolent direct action, passive resistance, and civil disobedience, and they engage in strikes, boycotts, demonstrations, and occupations.
The indispensable premise of mutualism is that society be organized, without the intervention of a state, by individuals able to make free contracts with each other, exchanging the necessities of life on the basis of labor value, and obtaining free credit from a people’s bank. Labor notes would be valued according to the average amount of time it took to make a product. Local communities would link up in a federalist system of workers’ associations and communes coordinated by councils at the local, regional, national, and international level. The members of the councils would be delegates, not representatives, without any executive authority and subject to instant recall, and the councils themselves would have no central authority.
Many revolutionaries in the Paris Commune of 1871 called themselves mutualists. Since it made no direct attack on the class system, mutualism tended to appeal to craftsmen, artisans, shopkeepers, and small farmers. Some mutualists developed into collectivists, a term used for the first time by Bakunin in 1868. Collectivists wish to restrict private property to the products of individual labor, arguing that there should be common ownership of the land and all other means of production. They look to a free federation of associations of producers and consumers to organize production and distribution, upholding the socialist principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to work done.” Nearly all the Spanish anarchists were collectivists.
After the demise of the First International in the 1870s, the European anarchist movement took a communist direction, though at first the distinction between communism and collectivism wasn’t always apparent. Communists felt that since it’s virtually impossible to calculate the exact value of any one person’s labor, the whole price and wage system should be done away with. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” is their slogan.
Where collectivists see the workers’ collective as the basic unit of society, communists look to the commune – consumers as well as producers – as the fundamental association. They believe that in a communist system economic relations would express the natural human sympathies of solidarity and mutual aid, releasing spontaneous altruism and creating an abundant way of life for all. The proper relationship between people, they believe, isn’t self-interest, however enlightened, but sympathy.
Anarcho-syndicalism, according to Wikipedia, “is a branch of anarchism which views revolutionary industrial unionism or syndicalism as an appropriate vehicle for subjugated classes in capitalist society to regain control over the course of their own destiny. Syndicalism is viewed both as a strategy for facilitating worker self-activity and as being an alternative cooperative economic system upon which to base a democratic regime of production for the satisfaction of human need once the injustices understood to be inherent to capitalist society have been overcome.” Anarcho-syndicalists take the view that trade unions and labor syndicates should be concerned with more than improving workers’ conditions and wages. They should also teach socialism and establish institutions of self-management so that when the revolution comes through a general strike, the workers will be prepared to begin the necessary social transformation.
Many Spanish anarchists were anarcho-syndicalists, as were, in many ways, the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World), founded in the US in 1905. The Wobblies, who believe in one international union, were powerful in the American labor movement and in politics until the Red Scare repression preceding and during World War II.
Pure anarchy in the sense of a society with no concentration of force and no social controls has probably never existed. Stateless and peasant societies employ sanctions of approval and disapproval, the offer of reciprocity and the threat of its withdrawal, as instruments of social control. But modern anthropology confirms that in “primitive” societies there is a limited and rarely imposed concentration of force. Anarchists wish to combine ancient patterns of cooperation and mutual aid with a more modern sense of individuality and personal autonomy.
In accordance with their beliefs about the state, anarchists have always preached abstention from conventional politics. Instead of paying taxes to a government, which then decides who is in need, anarchists prefer to help the disadvantaged directly by voluntary acts of giving or by participating in community organizations. They reject the claim made by democratic socialists that the state is the best means of redistributing wealth and providing welfare. They say that in practice the socialist state tends to spawn a vast bureaucracy that stifles the voluntary associations of community life, creates a new elite, and encourages dependency and conformity.
Rejecting the state, anarchists also reject its laws and coercive enforcement of them, pointing out that all human law is arbitrary. They seek to reduce the occasion for crime by eradicating its causes – government and accumulated property – and by educating people to think in terms of the general good rather than private interest. They admit that violent people might have to be restrained temporarily, but think they should be treated kindly and kept within the community if possible.
Most anarchists support national liberation movements as part of a wider struggle for freedom, but don’t believe people should give their loyalty to nation-states or serve as cannon fodder in nationalist wars.
Anarchists recognize that the freedom of all is the necessary condition for the freedom of each, and include freedom from want (in the sense of economic hardship) in this. The anarchist concept of freedom means freedom to do whatever one wants as long as it doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others or go against the common good. Such boundaries, however, are adopted voluntarily rather than being imposed by force by government or some other authority.
Taoism and Buddhism
The Chinese Taoists of the 6th century BC rejected government and believed that people could live in natural and spontaneous harmony. The Tao te Ching (“The Way and Its Power”), attributed to Lao Tzu and written in the 3rd century BC, celebrates the way of nature and describes how the wise person can follow it. The Taoist conception of nature is based on the ancient Chinese principles of yin and yang, opposite and complementary forces which together constitute the ch’i (matter-energy) of which all beings and phenomena are formed. Yin is the supreme feminine power, characterized by darkness, cold, and receptivity and associated with the moon; yang, masculine, bright, warm, and active, is identified with the sun. Both forces are at work within men and women and in all things.
The Tao, which can’t be defined – Lao Tzu likens it to a river flowing home to the sea or an uncarved block – follows what’s natural. It’s the way the universe works, the order of nature that gives all things their being, then changes them. The wise person contemplates and adopts its ways rather than trying to conquer or exploit it. For the Taoist, the art of living is to be found in simplicity, non-assertion, and spontaneity.
Central to Taoist teaching is the concept of wu-wei, the lack of wei. Wei is artificial, contrived activity that interferes with natural unfolding. From a political point of view, wei is authority imposed on natural order. Wu-wei is the creative and effective use of energy – work without effort, undertaken for its intrinsic value, that’s indistinguishable from play.
Favoring a form of agrarian collectivism, Taoists rejected all forms of imposed authority, government, and the state. The Tao te ching criticized of the bureaucratic, warlike, and commercial nature of the Chinese feudal system, and saw accumulated property as a form of robbery: “When the court is arrayed in splendor, the fields are full of weeds, and the granaries are bare.” Lao Tzu offers the social ideal of a decentralized classless society without government and patriarchy in which people live simply in harmony with nature, producing and sharing goods.
A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times faster than man,
They are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
Their food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple, their homes secure.
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.
The anarchistic tendency of the Taoists comes through even stronger in the writings of the philosopher Chuang Tzu, who lived about 369-286 BC. He wrote, “A mountain is high because of its individual particles. A river is large because of its individual drops. And he is a just man who regards all parts from the point of view of the whole.”
The disaffiliation, voluntary poverty, and nonviolence of practicing Buddhists continued the Taoist spirit. Zen Buddhism in particular attempts to reach truth and enlightenment without concepts, scriptures, and ritual. It developed in China in the 6th century AD, and reached Japan 500 years later. Zen is intended to bring the practitioner back to the original state of freedom he’s lost through ignorance. Anyone can become enlightened through direct and immediate experience, seeing into his or her own nature and realizing that it’s not separate from Nature as a whole. Zen monks live and work communally, with equal obligation and equal treatment, and, like all Mahayana Buddhists, are concerned with the welfare of the larger world and seek to be of service in it.
The Greek Cynics of the 4th century BC also rejected custom and law and wanted to live according to nature. They denied the competence of courts to judge actions, and argued that laws and hierarchies are without moral foundation. Antisthenes (c. 444-370 BC), a friend of Socrates, turned his back on his former aristocratic circle in order to pursue simple goodness among working people. He preached at open-air meetings that there should be no government, no private property, no marriage, and no established religion. His pupil, Diogenes, became even more famous. Condemning the artificial encumbrances of civilization, he aspired to live as simply as a dog. He was therefore called a “cynic,” which means “canine.” Diogenes not only rejected the institution of slavery, but declared his brotherhood with all beings, human and animal. He considered himself to be a “citizen of the world.”
The Stoics took up the doctrine of the Cynics, using nature as a guiding principle and developing the ideals of individualism, rationalism, equality, internationalism, and cosmopolitanism. Zeno (336-264 BC), called the founder of Stoicism, saw a social instinct that inclines people toward cooperation for the common good. In the fragments of Zeno’s Republic that have been preserved, there are no law courts, police, armies, temples, schools, money, or marriage. People live as a single “herd” without family or property, with no distinctions of race or rank, and no need for compulsion of any sort. A stateless society of complete equality and freedom spreads across the globe.
Christ’s voluntary poverty, his attacks on political authority and riches, and his sharing of food and other items inspired many early Christians to practice a form of communism. In the 4th century, Ambrose said, “Nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use. It has therefore produced a common right for all, but greed has made it right for a few. In accordance with the will of God and the union of nature, we ought to be of mutual help one to the other.” In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas recognized the right to property for personal use, but believed that anything extra should be distributed to those in need. The right to property is therefore only a right of administration or stewardship. Wealth is held in trust for the public good, and where death threatens or there is no other source of sustenance, it’s permissible to take what’s necessary.
At the beginning of the 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi lived in ecstatic joy, delighting in nature and repudiating all notion of property, including items for personal use. His message implied that the established church and state were lost in ostentation and opulence, and that the poor were the only community capable of redemption.
The Diggers and Ranters, part of the radical republican wing in the English Revolution of the 17th century, rejected church, state, and all temporal law, feeling that they were in a state of grace and could commit no sin. They looked to the Second Coming of Christ and the immediate realization of heaven on earth in which people would live in perfect freedom and complete equality. The poet William Blake thought similarly at the end of the 18th century, believing that since human beings are made in the Divine Image they can govern themselves without law or government.
Inspired by Gerrard Winstanley, the Diggers tried to set up a colony on a wasteland area in the spring of 1649. Hoping to “lay the foundation of making the earth a common treasury for all,” forty people planted beans, wheat, rye, parsnips, and carrots. Despite harassment by the local clergy, landlords, magistrates, and freeholders, who trampled on their seedlings, stole their tools, and pulled down their crude huts, they persevered for a year.
Winstanley believed God wasn’t a personal deity or Supreme Being, but a “spirit that dwells in all mankind.” He identified God with Reason and Reason with the law of the universe. A person subject to Reason became a Son of God, no longer ruled from without but from within, by their conscience, love, and reason. Winstanley wrote that the “ruling and teaching power without dams up the spirit of peace and liberty, first within the heart, by filling it with slavish fears of others; secondly, without, by giving the body of one to be imprisoned, punished, and oppressed by the outward power of another.” He believed private property to be the principal source of social conflict, “restraining other fellow creatures from seeking nourishment from their mother earth.” For these reasons, Winstanley attacked the social and political order and advocated an anarchist and communist form of society without the state, army, or law. Opposed to violence, including capital punishment, he didn’t call for mass insurrection or the seizure of the lands of the rich.
The Ranters, whom Winstanley despised, sought total emancipation from all laws and rules, and advocated free love. They attacked private property and called for its abolition, and rejected all forms of government, whether ecclesiastical or civil. The Ranters were often confused with Quakers, and many may have crossed over from one group to the other. Both believed there was an “indwelling spirit” or “inner light” in each individual soul and thought the power of love would be enough to bring about a new era of peace and freedom.
Tolstoy’s radical interpretation of the Gospels led him to the anarchist conclusion that since the Kingdom of God is within and we can be guided by the divine light of reason, governments are both unnecessary and harmful. If people would but understand that they are “sons of God,” Tolstoy wrote, “and can therefore be neither slaves nor enemies to one another, these insane, unnecessary, worn-out, pernicious organizations called governments, and all the sufferings, violations, humiliations, and crimes they occasion, would cease.” Tolstoy inspired a long tradition of anarchist pacifists, including Gandhi, who developed his doctrine of civil disobedience into a highly effective form of nonviolent direct action.
Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker organization in 1933, sought with the anarchist Peter Maurin to decentralize society and establish a community of families, with a combination of private and communal property. She stressed above all the need for love. Ammon Hennacy similarly preached “the one-man revolution within the heart,” based on voluntary poverty and pacifism. “When we take part in government by voting for legislative, judicial, and executive officials,” he wrote, “we make these men our arm by which we cast a stone [judge others] and deny the Sermon on the Mount.”
Classic Anarchist Thinkers
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first self-styled anarchist, published What Is Property? In 1840, and was an important influence on the developing French labor movement. Even though Proudhon answered his question “What is property?” with the bold paradox “Property is Theft,” he was wasn’t opposed to private property as such; in fact, he called communists who wanted to collectivize it “enemies of freedom.” He was principally opposed to large property-owners who appropriated the labor of others.
On the subject of government, he demonstrated that “anarchy is order” by showing that authoritarian government and the unequal distribution of wealth are the principal causes of disorder and chaos in society.
Marx tried to get Proudhon to join his international communist group, but the French printer was put off by Marx’s doctrinaire and dominating personality and by authoritarian communism. He wrote, “Simply because we are leaders of a movement let us not instigate a new intolerance. Let us not set ourselves up as the apostles of a new religion, even if it be the religion of logic or reason.” Marx called Proudhon a “petty-bourgeois idealist” who failed to recognize that human nature isn’t an unchanging essence but a product of history. This opposition marked the beginning of a split between libertarian and authoritarian socialists that later came to a head in the dispute between Marx and Bakunin in the First International.
Mikhail Bakunin was born into an aristocratic Russian family in 1814. At 22, he resigned from the army and went to Moscow to study and teach philosophy. He made his way to Paris in 1843, where he was impressed by Proudhon’s critique of government and property. He also met Marx, whom he described as “vain, morose, and devious…head to foot an authoritarian.”
Bakunin was arrested in Germany in 1849 for revolutionary activity. Deported to Russia, he spent the next eight years in solitary confinement. In 1855 his sentence was changed from life imprisonment to banishment in Siberia, and in 1861, he escaped, taking an American ship to San Francisco, then sailing to London.
In 1863 Bakunin went to Italy, where he wrote that “new organisms can only arise from immense destruction, and we will be fortunate to see even that.” He no longer believed in national liberation movements as a revolutionary force and began to advocate social revolution on an international scale. He praised Marx for having been the first to understand “that all the intellectual and political developments of society are nothing other than the expression of its material and economic developments.”
Bakunin was strongly influenced by the Italian anarchist leader Carlo Piscane, who defined property and government as the principal sources of slavery, poverty, and corruption, and called for a new Italy organized from the bottom up on the principle of free association. In the absence of a well-organized Italian workers’ movement, Bakunin created a secret society in Florence in 1864 and another in Naples in 1866. Although his secret societies were never influential, Bakunin hoped they would act as “invisible pilots in the thick of the poplar tempest, assisting the birth of the revolution by sowing seeds corresponding to the instincts of the masses, then channeling the revolutionary energy of the people.”
At this stage, Bakunin didn’t call for the direct and immediate expropriation of private industry, thinking that the abolition of the right of inheritance and the formation of cooperative workers’ associations would ensure the gradual disappearance of private ownership and economic inequality. He believed all property belonging to the state and to “reactionaries” should be confiscated, however. In place of existing nation states, society would be organized “from the base to the summit – from the circumference to the center – according to the principles of free association and federation.” The basic unit of society would be the autonomous commune, which would always have the right to secede from any federation. Decisions would be made by majority rule based on universal suffrage of both sexes. Every adult would be expected to fulfill three obligations: remaining free, living by his own labor, and respecting the freedom of others.
Bakunin recognized that this ideal society could only be put in place violently. He envisioned the revolution as a fight not against particular men, but against “antisocial institutions” that would not take long and would not degenerate into “cold, systematic terrorism.” In 1867 Bakunin acknowledged that the full realization of socialism “will no doubt be the work of centuries.” He also wrote that every human has a sense of justice deep in their conscience that translates itself into “simple equality.”
In 1868 in a speech at the Second Congress of the League for Peace and Freedom in Berne, Bakunin declared in no uncertain terms that all states are founded on “force, oppression, exploitation, and injustice, elevated into a system. They offer a double negation of humanity, internally by maintaining order by force and exploiting the people, and externally by waging aggressive war. By their very nature they represent the diametrical opposite of human justice, freedom, and morality.” He concluded that freedom and peace could only be achieved through the dissolution of all states and the creation of a universal federation of free associations, organized from the bottom up.
Later that year, Bakunin joined the Geneva branch of the International, and in 1869 acted as its delegate to the Fourth Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in Basel. He soon found support among the watchmakers of the French-speaking Jura, who provided him with a base, and he went on to win over other workers, especially in France and Italy. Meanwhile, his Italian comrade Giuseppe Fanelli went to Spain and soon converted the Spanish Federation, the largest organization within the International, to Bakunin’s collectivist and federalist program. It was from these libertarian sections of the International that revolutionary syndicalism, or anarcho-syndicalism, developed.
Bakunin felt that the best way for workers to learn theory wasn’t through propaganda and education, but through practice: “emancipation through practical action.”
The differences between Bakunin and Marx came to a head at the Basel Congress of the International in September 1869 with a split between the former’s anti-authoritarian communists, communist federalists, and communist anarchists and authoritarian communists.
In September 1870 Bakunin went to Lyon, France to try to trigger an uprising he hoped would lead to a revolutionary federation of communes. The Lyon uprising was quickly crushed, but it marked the beginning of the revolutionary movement that would culminate in the Paris Commune the following spring. In a fragment on “The Program of the Alliance” written at this time, Bakunin rejected class collaboration and parliamentary politics. He also attacked union bureaucracy by means of which elected leaders often become “absolute masters of the rank-and-file, and replace popular assemblies by committees.”
On religion, Bakunin wrote that the idea of God implied “the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice.” Bakunin considered God to be such a threat to human liberty and virtue that he reversed Voltaire’s famous phrase to say “if God really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.”
Bakunin was also concerned about the authoritarian dangers of a scientific elite, saying that it would be better for people to dispense with science altogether than be governed by technocrats, for “life, not science, creates life; the spontaneous action of the people themselves alone can create liberty.”
Bakunin saw representative government as an “immense fraud” resting on the fiction that executive and legislative bodies elected by universal suffrage represent the will of the people. Irrespective of their democratic sentiments, he said, all rulers are corrupted by their participation in government – political power means domination. Even workers put into power would the day after their election become “the most determined aristocrats, open or secret worshippers of the principle of authority, exploiters and oppressors.” Bakunin wrote that representative government is “a system of hypocrisy and perpetual falsehood whose success rests on the stupidity of the people and the corruption of the public mind…Freedom can be created only by freedom, by a total rebellion of the people from the bottom up.” A people’s state even in a transitional period is therefore a contradiction in terms. In one of his most famous maxims, Bakunin insisted that “freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice, and socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”
Bakunin abhorred the ancient Russian mir or peasant commune, because although the Russian peasants felt the land belonged to the community and were hostile to the state, they revered the tsar and were organized patriarchally. In contrast, the new commune in an emancipated society would consist of a voluntary association of free and equal individuals of both sexes. He believed individual freedom for Bakunin could only exist in the context of communal solidarity, and insisted that the basic principle of socialism was “that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop his humanity.”
Marx engineered Bakunin’s expulsion from the International at its Congress at the Hague in September 1872.
Bakunin considered the poorest and most oppressed and alienated to be the “flower of the proletariat,” while Marx dismissed this group, which he called the lumpenproletariat, as riffraff or rabble. Bakunin also felt that the peasants, whom Marx saw as “rural idiots,” were equally important in making the revolution. He hoped to see land being appropriated by agricultural associations and capital and the means of production by industrial associations. Marshall notes that Bakunin’s stress on the revolutionary potential of the peasantry has been confirmed by all the major revolutions of the 20th century – in Russia, Spain, China, Cuba, and Vietnam.
Bakunin died in Berne on July 1, 1876. His legacy was the spreading of anarchist ideas and the revolutionary spirit among 19th century workers, especially in France, Italy, Spain, and Latin America.
Peter Kropotkin, whom Marshall calls “the most systematic and profound anarchist thinker of the 19th century,” was born in 1842 into an aristocratic Russian family. As a military student, he became the personal page de chambre of Tsar Alexander II, whom he initially admired for liberating the serfs in 1861. The growing brutality of the regime eventually made Kropotkin distrust court politics and government in general, however. Later, his close observation of animals while serving as a military administrator in eastern Siberia led him to revise Darwin’s theory and insist that cooperation is the most important factor in evolution. Kropotkin’s contact with Siberian peasants and their communities also gave him a lasting faith in the solidarity and creative spontaneity of the people.
In 1871, having returned to St. Petersburg to study mathematics, Kropotkin was inspired by news of the Paris revolution, and the following year he visited western Europe. He became particularly friendly with Bakunin’s closest friend, James Guillaume, and absorbed his federalist ideas. Returning to Russia, Kropotkin became involved with the narodniks – young Russians who went to live with and educate the people (narod). Their goal was a new society based on a voluntary association of producers on the lines of the traditional Russian mir or village commune. The majority of these were for non-militant agitation, but Kropotkin advocated peasant uprisings and the seizure of land and property. He urged that society be organized by workers and peasants without government.
Arrested in March 1874, Kropotkin made a daring and dramatic escape from a prison hospital two years later. He left for England, determined to throw in his lot with the workers, and spent all his energy during the next five years in the anarchist cause. Arrested, he spent five years in a French prison, returning to London in 1886.
Kropotkin thought that small revolutionary groups should submerge themselves in workers’ organizations and act as catalysts to bring about a mass uprising and social revolution. He also recommended working through militant trade unions and was sympathetic to revolutionary syndicalism. Though associated with the doctrine of “propaganda by the deed,” Kropotkin was opposed to indiscriminate violence and believed that individual acts of violence were only justified as part of a revolutionary struggle with anarchist goals. He understood the despair that led to acts of terrorism, however, and refused to condemn anarchist terrorists outright, especially in view of the state’s mass terrorism.
Kropotkin maintained that man, like many other primates, is naturally adapted to live in society without artificial regulations. He noted that traditional people have always lived in clans and tribes in which customs and taboos ensure cooperation and mutual aid. People naturally engage in mutual aid out of an innate moral sense, and this voluntary cooperation hasn’t been eradicated by the appearance of coercive institutions and the modern state. The anarchist ideal, in other words, would bring people’s natural tendencies to the fore.
Kropotkin wrote that by its very nature the state can’t recognize a freely formed union operating within itself; it only recognizes subjects. “The State and its sister the Church arrogate to themselves alone the right to serve as the link between men.” In the history of human societies, the state has thus acted “to prevent direct association among men, to shackle the development of local and individual initiative, and to crush existing liberties in order to subject the masses to the will of minorities.” Kropotkin agreed with Marx that the political regime to which human societies are subjected is always the expression if the economic regime prevalent in that society. Even representative political systems, he believed, are by definition manipulated by those who control the economy.
Kropotkin criticized the revolutionary government advocated by state socialists as a transitional stage to a free society. Since a revolution is a growing and spontaneous movement, he wrote, any centralized political authority will check and crystallize its progress, and become a counterrevolutionary force resisting any development beyond itself. The immense and profound complexity of reorganizing society and elaborating new social forms can only be achieved by the collective suppleness of the mind of the whole people, not by an elected or dictatorial minority. Revolutionary groups should restrict their activity to awakening the consciousness of the people and reminding them of fundamental goals. On the morrow of the revolution, Kropotkin wrote, grievances and needs must be satisfied immediately so that the people can see that the situation has been transformed to their advantage and isn’t merely a change of persons and formulae. This necessitates the full expropriation of social goods and the means of production and the introduction of communism.
A free society for Kropotkin would be composed of a network of voluntary associations of equal individuals who are both consumers and producers. The network would include an infinite variety of groups and federations of all sizes – local, regional, national, and international, temporary and more or less permanent, formed for all possible purposes. The local commune would be the basic social unit and the center of life in town and country. Each group within the commune will be “drawn toward other similar groups in other communes,” and will federate with them “by links as solid as those which attach it to its fellow citizens,” constituting another “commune of interests whose members are scattered in a thousand towns and villages.”
In place of law, people would regulate their relationships by a combination of custom and free agreements, not enforced by any authority, but incentivized by common interest. With the eradication of private property and poverty, crime would be almost nonexistent, and the few disputes that arose could be easily settled by arbitrators.
When it came to organizing the economy, Kropotkin went beyond Proudhon’s mutualism and Bakunin’s collectivism to advocate a form of anarchist communism. Politically, this meant a society without government (anarchy); economically, it meant the complete negation of the wage system and the ownership of the means of production in common. Kropotkin felt that anarchist communism was the union of the two fundamental tendencies of society – toward political liberty and economic equality. The means of production would be owned by associations or communes of producers, organized on a voluntary basis and connected federally. Each person would do whatever work he could and receive from the common stock according to his needs, without money or exchange notes.
Kropotkin further advocated industrial decentralization, regional self-sufficiency, integration of town and country, and more intensive methods of food production. He was convinced that 5 hours of labor a day for 150 days a year would satisfy the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, with another 150 days to provide secondary goods. “After bread has been secured,” he wrote, “leisure is the supreme aim.”
All adults under a certain age – say, forty – would be expected to do some manual labor, but technology would reduce drudgery and toil and people could choose their work and vary it as they wished. The incentive to work would be the conscious satisfaction of the work itself and a sense of contributing to the general happiness.
Kropotkin returned to his homeland in 1917, but said after the Bolsheviks took power, “This buries the revolution. The method by which they seek to establish communism in a strongly centralized state makes success impossible and paralyzes the constructive work of the people.” In 1919, Kropotkin met with Lenin and complained about the persecution of the cooperatives and the bureaucratized local authorities. In December 1920 he wrote and complained about the hostage-taking practices of the Red Army during the civil war. The following year he wrote that the Bolsheviks were “perpetuating horrors” and ruining the country.
When Kropotkin died in February 1921, the Bolshevik government offered his family a state funeral, but they refused. His funeral proved to be the last great anarchist demonstration in Russia, for later that year the movement was crushed.
Feminist anarchist Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in a Jewish ghetto in Russia. At 15, her poverty-stricken family sent her to a half-sister in America. She decided to become a revolutionary in 1886, on the the Haymarket anarchists were hanged. Six years later, Goldman and her lover, Alexander Berkman, planned to assassinate Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 Homestead steel strike. Having wounded Frick, Berkman was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
In 1893, Goldman spent a year in prison for urging the unemployed to take bread by force. In 1906, Goldman and Berkman began publishing the monthly Mother Earth, which discussed anarchist ideas and featured writers like Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Wilde. Goldman also went on lecture tours, becoming one of the most magnetic and volatile orators in American history, despite the attempts of police and vigilante groups to silence her. She was imprisoned a second time for distributing birth control literature, but her longest sentence came from helping to set up No-Conscription Leagues and organizing rallies against the First World War. She and Berkman were arrested in 1917 for conspiracy to obstruct the draft and given two years in prison. Upon their release, they were stripped of their American citizenship and deported with other ‘Reds’ to Russia.
Goldman and Berkman were disappointed by the lack of free speech in the Soviet Union and the special privileges enjoyed by Communist Party members. Traveling throughout the country collecting documents for the revolutionary archives, they were horrified at the growing bureaucracy, political persecution, and forced labor they found. Their breaking point was reached when the Kronstadt rebellion was crushed by the Red Army. A series of workers’ strikes had taken place in March 1921 in Petrograd, supported by the Kronstadt sailors, calling for an equalization of rations, freedom of speech, and elections to the soviets. Goldman and Berkman obtained passports and left for Europe, convinced that the Revolution had been defeated.
Berkman settled in France, and Goldman in England, where she found herself almost alone in condemning the Bolsheviks so that her public lectures were poorly attended. On hearing that Goldman might be deported in 1925, another activist offered to marry her to give her British nationality, and she accepted his expression of solidarity. With a British passport, she was able to travel to France and Canada, and in 1934 was even allowed to return to the United States.
Depressed by the rise of fascism and by Berkman’s suicide in 1936, Goldman was greatly cheered to hear of the republican stand against Franco in Spain. In September 1936, at the age of 67, she went to Barcelona to join in the struggle. She worked with the anarchist CNT-FAI (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo-Federación Anarquista Ibérica), and on one occasion 10,000 of their members turned out to hear her call them a “shining example to the rest of the world.” She edited the English language edition of the organization’s bulletin and was given the task of publicizing their cause in Britain.
Goldman disagreed with the participation of the CNT-FAI in the coalition government of 1937 and the concessions they made to the increasingly powerful communists for the sake of the war effort. Still, she stood by her comrades.
Despite her profound disappointment at Franco’s eventual triumph, Goldman refused to compromise her anarchist principles. She wrote just before her death in 1940, “I am against dictatorship and fascism as I am opposed to parliamentary regimes and so-called political democracy.” Having met leading French syndicalists, Goldman saw syndicalism, with its wish to overthrow the wage system and replace the centralized state with the “free, federated grouping of the workers,” as the “economic expression of anarchism.”
While living in America, Goldman advocated the use of collective violence to overthrow the state and capitalism, and endorsed class war, direct action, and industrial sabotage. But after her experience in Russia in 1920 and 1921, she recognized the inconsistency in using violent means to achieve libertarian ends. Social revolution, she now thought, should recognize the sanctity of human life and aim at a fundamental change in values. As she wrote to a friend in 1923, “The one thing I am convinced of as I have never been in my life is that the gun decides nothing at all.” Goldman now thought the most effective way of reconstructing society was through example and “free school” education.
As a feminist, Goldman wrote that true emancipation for women began neither at the polls nor in the courts, but in a “woman’s soul” as she “assert[ed] herself as a personality…refusing the right to anyone over her body, refusing to bear children unless she wants them; and refusing to be a servant to God, the state, society, or her and family.” Living a “simpler, deeper, and richer” life according to her own lights, such free women will be “a force hitherto unknown in the world, a force for real love, for peace, for harmony; a force of divine fire,” able to give life to free men and women. Finally, she emphasized the importance of joy, saying, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”
After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, Nestor Makhno, an anarcho-communist revolutionary, organized a 400-square-mile area of the Ukraine with a population of 7 million into an autonomous region. The factories were occupied, and collectives organized their production. Makhno had to fight Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, and the Germans and Austrians who were given control of the Ukraine under the 1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
By September 1918, Makhno’s partisan army had captured the regional capital of Gulyai-Polye from the Austrians. Even under war conditions, the social revolution continued, with communes or free-work soviets set up in areas under Makhno’s control. When they passed through a district, his partisans would put up posters announcing, “The freedom of the workers and the peasants is their own, and not subject to any restriction. It is up to the workers and peasants themselves to act, to organize themselves in all aspects of their lives, as they themselves see fit. The Makhnovists can do no more than give aid and counsel. In no circumstances can they, nor do they wish to, govern.” Wherever they went, Makkno’s partisans carried the black flag of anarchy at their head, embroidered with “Liberty or Death” and “The Land to the Peasants, the Factories to the Workers.”
Groups of producers were federated into districts, and districts into regions. Free assembly, free speech, and a free press were declared. In January, February, and April of 1919, a series of Regional Congresses of Peasants, Workers, and Insurgents were held to discuss economic and military matters and elect a Regional Military Revolutionary Council.
Alarmed by the growing influence of the Makhnovist movement, the Bolshevik government tried to reach an agreement with Makhno in 1920. He insisted that in the area in which the Makhnovist army was operating “the worker and peasant populations shall create their own free institutions for economic self-administration; these institutions shall be autonomous and linked federally by agreements with the governing organs of the Soviet Republics.” In April 1919, the Third Regional Council had met despite being banned by the Soviet authorities, inviting delegates from the Red Army. After Makhno’s army defeated the Whites in October 1920, the Bolsheviks ordered that it be absorbed into the Red Army under Trotsky’s command. When Makhno resisted the order, the officers of the Crimean Makhnovist army were arrested while attending a joint military council, and shot. Makhno managed to fight on against hopeless odds until August 1921. In the end, defeated, he went into exile, slandered as a bandit and pogromist by the Bolsheviks. He died 13 years later in Paris.
Makhno’s widow and daughter were deported to Germany for forced labor during World War II. At the end of the war, they were arrested by the Russian NKVD and sentenced to eight years of hard labor. They lived in Kazakhstan after their release in 1953.
The Sarvodaya Movement
Sarvodaya, a Gujarati word meaning the progress or welfare of all, was used by Gandhi to express his political philosophy. He believed that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all, that all work has the same value, and that a life of labor is the only life worth living. The Gandhian social ideal also included an equitable distribution of wealth, communal self-sufficiency and individual freedom.
After Gandhi’s death, his followers in India (notably, Vinoba Bhave) continued working to promote the kind of society he’d envisioned, and their efforts have come to be known as the Sarvodaya Movement. Sarvodaya workers undertook various projects aimed at encouraging popular self-organization during the 1950s and 1960s, and groups descended from these networks continue to function locally in India today, some of them encouraging the voluntary donation and redistribution of land.
Marshall says that under Vinoba’s guidance the Sarvodaya movement took an increasingly anarchistic direction, advocating common ownership of the land. Gandhi had maintained that any property one has, including one’s talents, should be used for the benefit of the whole. As in the family, so in society: property should be held in common, each giving according to his ability and taking according to his needs. Like Gandhi, the Sarvodaya movement was and is committed to a decentralized economy of combined fields and workshops. Also, like Gandhi, the movement has been deeply suspicious of centralized authority. Stressing the right of private judgment and the importance of the individual conscience, Vinoba rejected the legitimacy of the state’s claim to obedience. “It is one mark of swaraj [independence] not to allow any outside power to exercise control over oneself. And the second mark of swaraj is not to exercise power over any other. These two things together make swaraj – no submission and no exploitation.”
Like their Western anarchist counterparts, the Sarvodayites assert that those who attain political power are inevitably corrupted. They also reject the idea that majority rule can express public opinion and bring about welfare of all, and believe that political parties are divisive. Recognizing that revolutions are never achieved by power or party politics, the Sarvodaya movement sought to develop a new form of politics based on the direct action of the people themselves, with all decisions taken either unanimously or by consensus (no member actively disagreeing). The movement is nonviolent, ascetic, and gradualist. Vinoba’s threefold program of political development moves from national independence via a decentralized self-governing state, to pure anarchy. The last stage will only be reached when all people are self-reliant and self-governing. The state will wither away as people build an alternative society through the slow and thorough transformation of ideas and values. Part of this process involves a new politics of party-less democracy based on the consensus of all classes and groups.
The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, a self-governance movement in Sri Lanka, provides development and conflict resolution programs to villages. Founded in 1958 by Dr A. T. Ariyaratne when he took forty high school students and twelve teachers from Nalanda College Colombo on an educational experiment to an outcaste village, it’s based on Buddhist and Gandhian principles, including sarvodaya and swaraj. The word “shramadana” means “a gift of labor.”
As of 2006, Sarvodaya staff and programs are active in some 15,000 (of 38,000) villages in Sri Lanka, involving 11 million people. The program begins with an invitation from a village for discussion of what is needed and how it can be done. It then creates a village council, builds a school and a clinic, and helps the village become economically self-sustaining. Sarvodaya also sponsors public meditations in which tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians meditate together on each other’s welfare.
“Neither Victims nor Executioners.” Albert Camus
During the 1960s, many members of the New Left espoused the traditional anarchist principles of mutual aid, direct action, and decentralization. Activists called for an end to hierarchy and domination, challenging corporate, state, and university authorities and criticizing the oppressive nature of contemporary culture, especially in the realm of sexuality and the family. They recognized the revolutionary potential of the marginal and declassé elements of society, realized that the organization of the movement foreshadowed the structure of the new society, and saw the need to create counter-institutions and build the new society from the bottom up.
The predominantly pacifist New Left largely existed outside strictly anarchist organizations, and saw feminism as a central issue. Where the main support for the old anarchist movement came from peasants and artisans, the new anarchists were principally disaffected middle-class intellectuals, especially teachers, social workers, and students. An anarchistic counterculture also developed, experimenting with mind-altering drugs and rejecting rationality and objectivity in favor of emotions, playfulness, and mysticism. The counterculture never offered a real threat to the status quo, however. Many of its fashions were taken up by the market, and most of its members were eventually co-opted by the dominant society and culture.
In France in May 1968, a student rebellion triggered the occupation of factories in one of the greatest general strikes in history. Graffiti on the walls in Paris declared: “Neither Gods Nor Masters;” “The More You Consume the Less You Live;” “All Power to the Imagination;” “It Is Forbidden to Forbid;” and “Be Realistic: Demand the Impossible.” But while the workers occupied the factories, they didn’t work in them and failed to turn their strike committees into administrative organs of self-management. After six weeks, a 10% pay raise was accepted by the reformist Confédération Générale du Travail. That and de Gaulle’s offer of new elections led to the collapse of the strike.
The riot following the Democratic Party convention in Chicago in 1968 was the high point of mass opposition to the state in the United States, and by the early ’70s the New Left had disintegrated as a coherent movement. The worldwide economic recession of 1973-4 checked post-scarcity utopianism, and the vast majority of rebellious youth put away their beads and tried to make it in straight society. Still, Proudhon’s maxim “Anarchy is Order,” commonly reduced to an encircled capital “A,” has become one of the most common graffiti in the urban landscape.
Anarchism today is no longer dismissed as the creed of bomb-throwers, but is increasingly recognized as one of thoughtful people asking important questions and proposing new ways of seeing and doing. Anarchy has been reinvented, and the new anti-capitalist, anti-war, and anti-globalization movements reflect its goals and decentralized and non-hierarchical ways of organizing.
Associated with “post-left anarchy” in the US, where the movement first emerged, are the journals Crimethinc, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Green Anarchy, and The Fifth Estate. Many primitivists are post-leftists, although John Zerzan, one of their most influential thinkers, likes to call himself “anti-leftist.” Primitivists reject modern technology and try to adopt a primitive lifestyle close to nature. They believe that technology, far from being “neutral,” as many think, has adverse mental, physical, emotional, and social effects on us. For the anarcho-primitivists, it isn’t the centralized and militarized state that’s the principal cause of social, political, and ecological crisis, as most anarchists maintain, but civilization itself. In their view, human society went wrong around 7,000 BC when it settled down to domesticate animals and grow crops. By contrast, according to David Watson, the hunter-gatherer world is “affluent because its needs are few, all its desires are easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and light…It is anarchic…a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society.”
Like deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists wish to have an unmediated experience of nature, and with Edward Abbey and the members of Earth First! they’re prepared to engage in eco-sabotage to defend ecosystems and non-human species.
Many of these primitivists, such as Fredy Perlman, John Zerzan, and Derrick Jensen, would like to see the dismantling of urban civilization. They wish to go “feral,” and return to a condition of “wildness,” if not in the woods, deserts, or mountains, in the interstices of urban life, reclaiming abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and dumpster-diving. Rejecting wage labor, they try to become active agents rather than passive subjects – mere consumers.
Zerzan notes that the increasing trend of using symbolic representation, especially through language, cuts us off from each other and from the natural world. The experience of time as a linear process (clock and calendar time) also prevents us from living in the here and now. Jensen, who admires Zerzan’s work, advocates paralyzing the capitalist system by sabotaging commercial infrastructure and means of communication. As an older American anarchist, Noam Chomsky, has pointed out, however, this would cause mass suffering and many deaths. Which is the greater evil?
Marshall points out that, given the present human population, it would be impossible for all of us to abandon cities and live as hunter-gatherers. He says the only real wilderness left is “within ourselves. We were born to be wild and free; the great question for the new millennium is how to expand our freedom and preserve the remaining wilderness.”
Green anarchists, who share many of the primitivists’ beliefs, learn earth and survival skills, practice self-sufficiency, and try to simplify their lives while continuing to live in the city. They predict that the present form of industrial civilization, spreading across the world with global capital and political imperialism, will lead to a social and ecological catastrophe unless there is a major shift in values. While keeping a wider perspective, they stress the importance of local identity, rehabilitation of the land, and bioregionalism.
Syndicalists like Graham Purchase and Wobbly organizer Judi Bari have tried to develop a form of green syndicalism, in which unions committed to direct action and workers’ self-management take up ecological concerns. Anarchists have also been involved in the animal liberation and animal rights movements. Wild Greens and members of Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front defend the planet and its species with a wide variety of tactics carried out by autonomous groups and individuals. Another movement to emerge from green anarchy is freeganism, which advocates voluntary joblessness and living off the abandoned products of industrial society, such as the food thrown away by supermarkets.
Many green anarchists have been inspired by the poet and essayist Gary Snyder’s “Buddhist anarchism. He’s called for a return to a tribal way of life based on bioregions, truly dwelling in and caring for the land where we live. Synder reminds us that the most immediate and ordinary can be the most sacred, and that wildness isn’t just wild nature, but the wild culture of free peoples and the wild mind of creativity.
The science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has introduced many people to anarchism (and Taoism), most notably through her utopian novel The Dispossessed (1974). As the hero Shevek makes clear, “You can’t make the Revolution; you can only be the Revolution. It’s in your spirit, or it’s nowhere.” In her great work of utopian fiction Always Coming Home (1985), Le Guin has created an ideal culture and its dystopian mirror image: the cooperative, egalitarian Kesh and the patriarchal, militaristic Condor people. Pagan anarchist and novelist Starhawk imagines a similar cultural dichotomy in her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing (1994).
Anarchists still reject political representation in favor of direct and participatory democracy, and have generally boycotted elections. John Clark has argued that in some circumstances tactical voting can be beneficial if candidates are trying to educate, rather than gain power, particularly in local elections. Today’s anarchists engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and direct action, including squatting, sabotage, defacing ads, and reclaiming the streets. “Critical mass” actions by small groups try to trigger a sustained chain reaction among the wider populace. Carnival, festival, theater, and pranks are used to highlight the coercive and empty nature of the state and corporate culture and show a different way of doing things that’s decentralized, democratic, egalitarian, and fun.
Marshall says his own view is that “when there are enough people who want to be free, we’ll have a free society.” He adds that love can subvert the “mad rationality of the Panopticon and Pentagon.” Just as the notion of self-organization, partly inspired by cybernetics, became popular in the ’70s, the more organic image of the rhizome now represents the principles of connection and heterogeneity – an a-centered, non-hierarchical, non-signifying system without organizing memory or central automation. The metaphor describes the kind of grassroots, leaderless networks of groups and movements that have emerged in the international campaign against corporate globalization and war. Working within mainstream society, it’s possible to create a new culture, building relationships of trust, support, and cooperation in ever-widening and overlapping circles. These networks are often made up of affinity groups, convivial gatherings of like-minded individuals that are autonomous, fluid, flexible, and responsive, coming and going according to need and desire. They can form loose clusters and confederations, and where necessary send delegates or “spokes” to larger assemblies or “spokes councils” to coordinate their thinking and action through a process of consensus decision-making. Current “practical anarchy” also includes experiments in communal living, alternative economic systems, and community currencies.
The theory and tactics of the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico have caught the attention of anarchists, too. Named after the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata and partly inspired by the anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in 1994 in the state of Chiapas, demanding the right of the indigenous people of southern Mexico to be different and self-governing. Holding off the armed forces of the Mexican state, they’ve organized in autonomous municipalities with no fixed leadership, executive body, or headquarters. Their charismatic spokesman, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos – probably a missing professor of philosophy – playfully expresses left-libertarian views. He says he wears his mask as a “vaccine against caudillismo,” against the danger of becoming a boss.
Marshall concludes his book by saying, “It is still realistic to demand the impossible; indeed, it is more urgent than ever, if we are to survive the ecological crisis and reverse the growing injustice and inequality in the world. We need to imagine and realize an alternative future and social reality, one based on autonomy, individuality, community, solidarity, and a deep concern for the natural world…Like Malatesta, Reclus, and Voltairine de Cleyre more than a century ago, I advocate ‘anarchy without adjectives,’ anarchism which embraces rather than spurns, which encourages mutual tolerance between different strands and schools. It does not try to impose a common economic system: mutualism can evolve into collectivism, which in turn can develop into voluntary communism. As in republican Spain during the Civil War, land can be held in common while at the same time allowing some to work their own plots. Individualism can be supported by community…The organized warfare of modern states, the ruthless exploitation of transnational corporations, and the blind hatred of religious fundamentalists can be subverted by an ethos of universal love, justice, and reverence for all life. There is no need to despair or feel powerless, for as the ‘velvet revolutions’ in the former Soviet bloc, the self-managing citizens of Argentina, and the Zapatista peasants of Chiapas have shown, if enough people do not accept those in power, they cannot stay there for long.
In the meantime, we can form affinity groups, develop communities and cooperatives, and create permanent and temporary autonomous zones within the fissures of the authoritarian society. We can develop grassroots, participatory institutions. Depending on how it’s used, the internet can also create networks of like-minded people all over the world, sharing their experiences and knowledge and organizing protest and resistance.”
Solidarity beats prayers
In “Fuck Your Prayer, Show Me Solidarity,” posted 12-15 on killingthebuddha.com, Kristin Rawls tells her “coming-out story in an age of predatory credit…the story of a good girl from a quiet town who prayed, studied hard, said no to drugs, and otherwise did everything she was told,” then found herself – where she remains – living in a modern debtors’ prison.
“I grew up in an evangelical home, and was an earnest “liberal-evangelical” into my early twenties,” Rawls says. “Now I think that my former religious faith – not unlike my faith in the U.S. higher education system – gave me a warped sense of optimism about the way the world works.”
Issues of debt and default, Rawls notes, are so “cloaked in shame and humiliation that many of us stay silent…Financial struggle is associated with sloth in this country.” Because of her “low credit score,” Rawls has “trouble finding stable employment,” and has to work low-paying temporary jobs and spend all her free time writing “as many freelance articles as I can convince anyone to pay me for…I am thirty-one years old. I am not a drug user. I am not an alcoholic. My crime is that I went to school, and then I got sick…
I’m among America’s brightest and best educated. If you came across me in a social setting, you might mistake me for a middle- or upper-middle-class person. This is because I ‘pass’ pretty well. However, I’m not able to get jobs that match my skills, because employers assume based on my credit score that I’m lazy and incompetent. I’ve never done anything irresponsible except having gone to school. I’m the new face of financial ruin in this country…
I’m not telling you these things to facilitate a bonding experience or to bare my soul. I’m coming to believe that refusing to be silenced by shame is the first step in fighting predatory student lenders, that the only way to decouple financial struggle from shame is to normalize it, one person at a time.”
Rawls says that, growing up, her parents and mentors all encouraged her to “follow her dreams, no matter what they cost. So I took out loans,” and went to college and graduate school in international relations. “I decided I wanted to be a professor. I loved the academy, and I was good at asking tough, big-picture questions that got to the heart of things. I was at the top of my class, and I was physically healthy. I’ve never been a big spender, and I saw no reason why I couldn’t live on the stipend of $14,000 per year I’d be receiving from the Penn State PhD program that admitted me. I knew it was risky, but I saw it as a bet on myself. My intellect had never let me down before. I don’t come from a wealthy family, and there would be no cushion if I didn’t fast-track my way to tenure, but I thought I could make it…
Not long after I began my PhD program, I was diagnosed with lupus, a life-threatening autoimmune disease. I soon found that my health insurance was designed for young, healthy people, not people who develop serious diseases in their late twenties…For over a year, I suffered through a major lupus flare, unable to lift my arms for more than a couple of seconds without excruciating pain. I had trouble getting around, and often arrived late at the morning classes I taught. I had to borrow large amounts of money from Sallie Mae and Citibank, because my insurance didn’t cover all my healthcare expenses. When your doctors say you could have ‘vital organ involvement leading to premature death,’ do you worry about the cost, or about your vital organs? I didn’t want to die, so I took out as many loans as I had to, and before long, I had to drop out of school. Now I understand why so many people who are mired in this sort of debt contemplate suicide. I’m not suicidal, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to run on rage indefinitely.”
Rawls then relates her some of her experiences with evangelical Christians – and evangelical Christian groups – professing to care about economic and social justice, while ignoring issues of class. Many of them, she says, claim to be “sympathetic” with the Occupy movement, but concerned about the 1%, because “God loves them, too.” Here’s where we get to the part I struggle with, because spiritual beliefs back up what I say and do as well, and I strive for inclusiveness, nonviolence, love, etc.
Rawls again: “Occupy Wall Street isn’t perfect, but it’s the first sustained critique of class injustice in this country in my lifetime.” The problem of poverty is structural, systemic – not just a matter of creating more jobs. There are also billions of people around the world who’ve been struggling with poverty for generations, often because of first and second world vs. third world privilege. Donating to charities isn’t going to change that either. Rawls insists that only concrete action, real societal changes, will correct unjust balances of power – justice can’t be achieved just through love, prayer, and meditation, as many spiritual people seem to believe. As she says: “Notwithstanding the fact that ‘love’ is perhaps the vaguest, most unhelpful political prescription of all time, this kind of thinking removes any analysis of power from the conversation. It falsely presumes that we all enter the conversation on equal footing. Everyone is so busy preaching ‘unity’ and ‘loving one another’ that there’s never any interrogation of privilege or power.” The message Rawls feels she’s getting is “Love your oppressors. ‘Love’ rhetoric is less pronounced in secular society, but we’re accustomed to being silenced because we have a ‘mean tone.’ We’re asked to speak more respectfully so that we can earn a hearing. We’re taught to submit to our oppressors. We’re being angry and irrational, and it’s our job to make everyone comfortable.
Rawls refuses to be pitied or objectified, saying, “I’m unlucky…not ‘downtrodden.’ I’m pissed off. I don’t want your prayers or an invitation to your church, and I’m not interested in discussing ‘the poor’ as if they’re some kind of abstract concept…If it makes you feel better, go ahead and dismiss me as ‘bitter,’ but I’m not. I’m outraged. I want ‘fellowship’ with people who are outraged with me, and who practice solidarity by showing up when it matters and advocating for real economic justice – shutting down predatory lenders like Sallie Mae and Citibank…I want to turn the shame machine back on you, and I want to invite others like me to come out and stand up against your paternalism. You’re not helping me. You don’t speak for me. I’m the new poor. I did all the right things, but now I’m part of the systematic erosion of the bourgeoisie in America that started with home foreclosures and went on to student debt. Occupy Student Debt just released a video suggesting that one in five new graduates will default. We have no bankruptcy protection, usually meaning that our credit is ruined for life. And credit is tied to everything in this country. In some states, you can actually lose your driver’s – or professional – license for student loan default. We’re talking about a large segment of my generation losing its future.
And we’re being blamed. We had so many opportunities. How could we squander them, and then turn around and blame our lenders? Without them, we never could have gone to school! And we shouldn’t have, in any case, if we couldn’t afford it. We’re thieves! We’re irresponsible! I think these kinds of insults reaffirm our certainty that these awful things could never happen to us. One of my goals here is to show you that they can. If you feel that this is solely my fault, that I should have known better, and that the predatory lenders in question bear no responsibility, I invite you to stop calling yourself my ‘friend.’ Real friendship doesn’t come in the form of paternalistic charity from the powerful to the weak. I don’t want crumbs from your share of the non-profit industrial charity complex – I want you to fight with me for a world in which I don’t need charity. So, stand up and join the class war, please, or get out of my way. Don’t expect me to be grateful for your prayers. I have survival to worry about, literally.”
No room at the inn
We’re told that when Mary and Joseph were looking for a place to spend the night in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, there was “no room at the inn.” They were forced to take refuge in a stable, where their baby, Jesus, was born, rekindling the light. I thought of this when I read yesterday on the Democracy Now website that 1.6 million children in the United States (one in 45 kids) were homeless at some point last year. The National Center on Family Homelessness, which released this study, said the child homelessness rate has jumped 33 percent since 2007. Wow — proud to be an American.
I’m also thinking about “no room at the inn” in conjunction with our local Occupy movement, which is apparently going to be evicted from its site — on public property — any day now, after bending over backwards to accommodate the requests of the police and City Council. They went so far, in fact, that glaring spotlights are now trained all night on the camp, and police are stationed there 24-7, turning the encampment of peaceful protestors and new-culture-modelers into a prison/gulag. If the police wanted to protect the camp against crimes committed by the homeless mentally ill and substance abusers attracted to it, they could have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, but that obviously wasn’t their purpose. They just wanted to cast the camp in a negative light, preparatory to breaking it up.
The break-up will be a breach of the hard-won agreement between camp leaders and city council a few days ago that the camp could stay in place till January 11th. No reason or explanation given.
No room at the inn for the homeless, whatever their age or numbers, or for idealists willing to offer them a place in their midst, no matter how difficult that turns out to be.
A piece on last week’s “60 Minutes” showed bulldozers in Cleveland tearing down perfectly good houses no one wants to buy in hopes that the remaining houses won’t lose any more of their value. Apparently, the vacant houses attract thieves who strip them of anything of value on the ground floor, including plumbing and siding. If banks would renegotiate mortgages according to the current, rather than the previous value of these homes, people could afford to stay in them, but they won’t, so everyone loses.
Where have all those people gone? Have they found an inn?
Instead of taking these things on the chin as individuals — blaming ourselves for our “failure” to “make it,” we need to band together and put the responsibility where it belongs: on a failed system. Then refuse to be foreclosed, have our camps broken up, and just go off and die because the system doesn’t need us anymore.
Capitalism: how’s it workin’ for ya? The ones it is workin’ for will keep crushing the ones it isn’t workin’ for as long as we let them. Let’s ignore the dog and pony show of the election, Congress, and all that, and get together on this! Nonviolently if we can.
The bottom line is the inherent right of every man, woman, and child — whoever and wherever they are, and whatever they have or haven’t done — to respect and dignity. If you don’t recognize that right, in your actions as well as your words, I suggest you take another look at yourself. The practice is difficult, but it’s what that little baby grew up to preach, and it’s still the best ideal I know of.
May the peace and brother/sisterhood of the season touch you. Pass it on…