Many among today's young radical activists, especially those at the center of the anti-globalization and anti-corporate movements, call themselves anarchists. But the intellectual/philosophical perspective that holds sway in these circles might be better described as an anarchist sensibility than as anarchism per se. Unlike the Marxist radicals of the sixties, who devoured the writings of Lenin and Mao, today's anarchist activists are unlikely to pore over the works of Bakunin. For contemporary young radical activists, anarchism means a decentralized organizational structure, based on affinity groups that work together on an ad hoc basis, and decision-making by consensus. It also means egalitarianism; opposition to all hierarchies; suspicion of authority, especially that of the state; and commitment to living according to one's values. Young radical activists, who regard themselves as anarchists, are likely to be hostile not only to corporations but to capitalism. Many envision a stateless society based on s mall, egalitarian communities. For some, however, the society of the future remains an open question. For them, anarchism is important mainly as an organizational structure and as a commitment to egalitarianism. It is a form of politics that revolves around the exposure of the truth rather than strategy. It is a politics decidedly in the moment.
Anarchism and Marxism have a history of antagonism. Bakunin, writing in the late nineteenth century, argued that the working class could not use state power to emancipate itself but must abolish the state. Later, anarchists turned to "propaganda of the deed," often engaging in acts of assassination and terrorism in order to incite massuprisings. In the early twentieth century, anarcho-syndicalists believed that militant trade unionism would evolve into revolution as a result of an escalating logic of class struggle. Marx (and also Lenin) had pointed out that constructing socialism would require a revolutionary transformation of the state (and ultimately a "withering away" of the state based on class). Anarchists, however, criticized Marxists for tending in practice to treat the state as an instrument that could simply be taken over and used for other ends. Anarchists saw the state not as a tool, but as an instrument of oppression, no matter in whose hands. The Stalinist experience lent credence to that criti que.
The anarchist mindset of today's young activists has relatively little to do with the theoretical debates between anarchists and Marxists, most of which took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It has more to do with an egalitarian and anti-authoritarian perspective. There are versions of anarchism that are deeply individualistic and incompatible with socialism. But these are not the forms of anarchism that hold sway in radical activist circles, which have more in common with the libertarian socialism advocated by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn than with the writings of Bakunin or Kropotkin. Today's anarchist activists draw upon a current of morally charged and expressive politics.
There is considerable overlap between this contemporary anarchism and democratic socialism partly because both were shaped by the cultural radicalism of the sixties. Socialists and contemporary anarchists share a critique of class society and a commitment to egalitarianism. But the history of antagonism between the two worldviews has also created a stereotype of anarchism in the minds of many Marxists, making it difficult to see what the two perspectives have in common. Anarchism's absolute hostility to the state, and its tendency to adopt a stance of moral purity, limit its usefulness as a basis for a broad movement for egalitarian social change, let alone for a transition to socialism. Telling the truth to power is or should be a part of radical politics but it is not a substitute for strategy and planning.
There are also things that Marxists could learn from the anti-globalist activists. Their anarchism combines both ideology and imagination, expressing its fundamentally moral perspective through actions that are intended to make power visible (in your face) while undermining it. Historically, anarchism has often provided a too-often ignored moral compass for the left. Today, anarchism is attracting young activists, while Marxist socialism is not, or at least, not in the same numbers. What follows is an effort to make sense of the reasons for this attraction.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anarchism anchored the militant, radical side of the U.S. labor movement and left in something like the way that Communism would in later decades, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Though there were anarchist organizations, most importantly the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), organization was not a strength of the anarchist movement, as it was, later, of the Communist movement. Anarchist identity was not linked to membership in any organization in the way that Communist identity was later linked to membership in the Communist Party. Despite such differences anarchism occupied something like the position within the broader left that …