Magazine article Dissent

No Cheers for Anarchism

Magazine article Dissent

No Cheers for Anarchism

Article excerpt

What are the uses of anarchism? The short answer is "not many." Although anarchists have often been motivated by worthy aspirations and occasionally raised awareness of crucial issues, in general, anarchism is an ineffective way of improving the world. Anarchists are better dreamers than doers, and politics is the art of the possible. Although it may disappoint many on the left, a successful movement requires compromise, organization, and yes, even leadership, to actually get things done.

There are many variants and historical manifestations of anarchism, but characterizing all is a rejection of authority and hierarchy. Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism's rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune. Anarchists also became associated with "propaganda of the deed"-"spontaneous" and "voluntary" actions that reflected the power of the individual and were designed to inspire others. Although these actions need not necessarily be violent, they often were: during this period anarchists were responsible for a series of spectacular assassinations and bombings. A czar of Russia, presidents of Italy and France, kings of Portugal and Greece, and a president of the United States all met their ends at the hands of anarchists. Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune's lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution. The most direct effect of assassinations and bombings, meanwhile, was to provide conservatives with a rationale for putting in place repressive measures against the entire left.

The ineffective nature of anarchism (including the violence it often entailed) and other utopian movements led most on the left to turn away from them by the late nineteenth century and instead focus their energies on the creation of organized and disciplined parties and trade unions. Lenin famously excoriated anarchists and other "left-wing communists" as victims of an "infantile disorder, incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness." Their efforts, he said, were premature and counterproductive: "Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement." In Europe, persistent and effective political organizing enabled non-anarchist left-wing movements to transform the working class into a potent political force that was eventually able to force ancien régimes to accept democratization and at least some public social provision. And in Russia, of course, organization and discipline enabled Lenin and his band of communists to seize power directly during a crisis.

During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience-none of which appealed to anarchists. …

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