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July 1, 2010

Who are the "anarchists"?

Reuel S. Amdur

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The corporate media have given considerable attention to the activities of the Black Bloc at the recent G20 and smeared them by calling them "anarchists."

People today often have a general idea of what socialism means and understand something of its various forms, but anarchism is less familiar. 

At times and in some places, it has played a prominent role, particularly in Russia prior to the Communist triumph and in the Latin countries of Europe.

In the United States, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was a major labor union in the early and middle years of the last century, and it had an anarchist orientation.  One of its slogans was “Strike at the ballot box with an ax.”

The mention of anarchism as a significant political movement limits it range, however. 

More generally, anarchism is opposition to the form of social organization which is the state. 

It sees the state as repressing individual freedom and providing unwarranted control and dominating individuals and groups. 

While anarchism is predominantly an ideology or movement of the Left, it has also been espoused in one form or another by right-wingers who object to any limits to their economic powers and prerogatives.

Anarchism has been both pacifist and violent.  Its pacifist embodiment is found in the thought of people like Leo Tolstoy. More violent and destructive manifestations of anarchism are identified with Michael Bakunin. 

“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” he said.  The Black Bloc appears to belong to that tendency. 

At an extreme end, anarchists have engaged in assassinations, both to punish those deemed worthy of punishment and to serve to educate the population in general and the exploiting class in particular. 

Alexander Berkman shot and wounded capitalist Henry Clay Frick to punish him for the death of locked-out workers from his Homestead, Pennsylvania steel plant, killed in a battle with Pinkerton agents.  Anarchists have also killed various French, Spanish, and Russian political and other government officials. 

In its major manifestation, anarchism has been closely related to and in competition with various strains of socialism. 

In the end, its opposition to the state has made it lose out to socialist movements for labor support.  Socialist and Communist parties and organizations have been prepared to take power in government, and anarchists, when confronted with the opportunity, as they were in Catalonia during the Spanish Revolution, have been unable to act decisively, hamstrung by ideology. 

How do you take State power if you oppose the state?  In the United States, the IWW succumbed to unions prepared to deal with government and with elections.  Many of their leaders became Communists and socialists.

The violent tendency in anarchism has led to anomalous situations.  Thus Berkman’s action initiated a backlash against unions, hardly the outcome he desired. 

Georges Sorel, anarchist author of Reflections on Violence, ended up as a fascist. 

Anarchism has a certain emotional appeal—total freedom and brotherhood.  However, it has fundamental flaws.  The ideology has an underlying belief in human goodness and reason, a belief challenged in the last century by the work of Sigmund Freud. 

In more concrete terms, society requires social control.  In its absence, chaos, mayhem, and subjection to the control of those who are stronger at the moment occur. 

Then there is the problem of economics.  What is to be produced, and how are the goods and services produced to be distributed? You can have economic decisions determined by the market or by the plan, but hardly by neither.

Finally, it is clear that a modern industrial society is simply too complex to operate without controls.  One is reminded of the words of Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary: “The distinction between freedom and liberty is not accurately known; naturalists have never been able to find a living specimen of either.” 

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