Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence: the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the bowers of paradise. Political ideas crossed the Atlantic almost as rapidly in the 18th century as in the 21st, and the American Revolution made the French Revolution inevitable.

Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction

Jefferson, Paine, and Franklin had a role in both, while William Godwin in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice was arguing the anarchist case from first principles. Varlet, who actually survived the Terror, observed that. Despotism has passed from the palace of kings to the circle of a committee. It is neither the royal robes, nor the sceptre, nor the crown, that makes kings hated, but ambition and tyranny. In my country there has been only a change in dress.

Anarchism reappeared in the European revolutions of In the following year, after the failure of the revolution in Dresden, Bakunin was imprisoned, condemned to death, and after a year handed over to the Austrians, condemned again, but in the next year handed over to the Russians. The absolute autonomy of the Commune extended to all the localities of France, assuring to each its integral rights and to every Frenchman the full exercise of his aptitudes, as a man, a citizen, and a worker.

The autonomy of the Commune will have for its limits only the equal autonomy of all other communities adhering to the contract; their association must assure the liberty of France. Needless to say, although the Commune had an admired anarchist heroine, Louise Michel, its Manifesto did not extend these rights to Frenchwomen. In the major revolutions of the 20th century there were recognizable anarchist elements, but in each of them the anarchists were victims of the new rulers. With the fall of Diaz, Magon established contact with the peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in the state of Morales in the South, fighting the efforts of large landowners to annex the land of poor growers.

Zapata was ambushed and killed in , while Magon was jailed in the United States and was murdered in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Both of these are campaigns of dispossessed peasants for communal control of land seized by large-scale cattle-ranching oligarchies. The anarchist hero of the revolution was the Ukrainian peasant Nestor Makhno, organizing peasant land seizures and defending them from both the Bolsheviks and the Whites.

Returning Russian exiles included Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, deported from the United States, and Kropotkin, who had been obliged to live abroad for 40 years. Kropotkin addressed critical letters to Lenin and wrote a Letter to the Workers of Western Europe describing for them the lessons of the Russian Revolution.

In the Far East, the habit of sending young men from affluent families to complete their education in Europe led to a string of revolutionary students bringing back to China from Paris the anarchist message of Kropotkin in his propagandist books The Conquest of Bread , Mutual Aid , and especially Fields, Factories and Workshops. The revolution of 19 July in Spain illustrates another gulf between the anarchist account of events and the way they are perceived and described by more influential voices.

On 18 July , Spain had three Popular Front governments in the course of a single day, debating how to oppose the military revolt from the generals in Morocco, which was moving into mainland Spain, and usually concluding that resistance was futile.

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Meanwhile in several cities and regions, not only were the weapons of the military garrisons and the civil guards seized, but CNT members took control of factories, transport, and land. A futher heavy penalty was paid for Soviet support. In the effort to resist growing Soviet influence, anarchist and syndicalist militants actually became ministers both in the Catalan government in Barcelona and in the central government in Madrid.

The war in Spain wound down to its desolate conclusion in April , after immense loss of life. The collapse of opposition brought a relentless campaign of vengeance against those who dared to oppose Franco. There were untold numbers of executions and the prisons were filled. Millions of Spaniards lived out their lives in exile. From the point of view of the anarchists, Spain thus provided terrible ironies. In those parts of the country that had not been seized by army units supporting Franco there were large-scale seizures of land. At the same time many smallholdings were too small to feed a family.

Observers from the time similarly reported on the collectivization of factories in Catalonia and of the reorganization of public services, transport, telephones, gas, and electricity in Barcelona. The American philosopher of language Noam Chomsky remembers reading about these achievements as a boy in New York, in the Yiddish-language anarchist journal Fraye Arbeter Shtime.

But the villagers shared food, clothing, and tools, and took in a large number of refugees. Membrilla is perhaps the poorest village of Spain, but it is the most just. An account such as this, with its concern for human relations and the ideal of a just society, must appear very strange to the consciousness of the sophisticated intellectual, and it is therefore treated with scorn, or taken to be naive or primitive or otherwise irrational.

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Only when such prejudice is abandoned will it be possible for historians to undertake a serious study of the popular movement that transformed Republican Spain in one of the most remarkable social revolutions that history records. By now the serious studies have been made, and Chomsky has stressed their significance and their lessons for the future, since, as he says,. What attracts me about anarchism personally are the tendencies in it that try to come to grips with the problems of dealing with complex organised industrial societies within a framework of free institutions and structures.

The Spanish experience hardly met the second of his criteria, but the events of amply justified his comments. These achievements were barely noticed in the news media of Western Europe outside the journals of anarchism and the non-communist far Left, and when George Orwell, back from Spain, attempted to puncture the conspiracy of silence in his Homage to Catalonia in , his book had sold a mere copies before being remaindered to the anarchist bookshop in Since every variety of anarchism has opposed the structure of politics and the political system, this decision was seen as a compromise that brought no advantage and much discredit.

Suppressed aspirations emerged on the streets of Hungarian and Polish cities in and on those of Czechoslovakia in They were harbingers of the subsequent bloodless collapse of the Soviet Union, after decades of appalling suffering for those who, usually inadvertently, failed to please their rulers. As the regimes of their jailers collapsed around them, there was some comfort for the surviving anarchists, with their black flags of protest against the new capitalism steered into being by their old oppressors.

They were still monotonously right and their priorities remained the same. There is a vital distinction, stressed by anarchists, between society and the state. It has been obvious for centuries, and although many political thinkers have ignored this distinction, it was as clear, for example, to such 20th-century academics as Isaiah Berlin or G. Cole as it was in the 18th century to Thomas Paine, cited in the previous chapter. The philosopher Martin Buber was the friend and executor of the German anarchist Gustav Landauer, whose observation about the nature of the state as a mode of human behaviour is discussed in Chapter 1.

In his capacity as a professor of sociology, Buber provided a striking polarization of the two principles of human behaviour involved: the political and the social. He saw the characteristics of the political principle to be power, authority, hierarchy, and dominion, while the social principle was visible to him in all spontaneous human associations built around a common need or common interest.

The problem that arose was that of identifying the reason for the continual ascendancy of the political principle. All forms of government have this in common: each possesses more power than is required by the given conditions; in fact, this excess in the capacity for making dispositions is actually what we understand by political power.

The measure of this excess. The political principle is always stronger in relation to the social principle than the given conditions require. The result is a continuous diminution in social spontaneity. Social spontaneity is highly valued by anarchists but is not on the agenda of the politicians involved in dismantling the British post-war welfare state, and recommending the virtues of profit-making private enterprise.

Anarchists are frequently told that their antipathy to the state is historically outmoded, since a main function of the modern state is the provision of social welfare. They respond by stressing that social welfare in Britain did not originate from government, nor from the post-war National Insurance laws, nor with the initiation of the National Health Service in It evolved from the vast network of friendly societies and mutual aid organizations that had sprung up through working-class self-help in the 19th century.

His constituency was the home of the Tredegar Medical Society, founded in and surviving until It provided medical care for the local employed workers, who were mostly miners and steelworkers, but also unlike the pre National Health Insurance for the needs of dependants, children, the old, and the non-employed: everyone living in the district. At one time the society employed five doctors, a dentist, a chiropodist and a physiotherapist to care for the health of about 25, people.

Politics Book Review: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

A second reflection on the story of Tredegar is that when every employed worker in that town paid a voluntary levy to extend the local medical service to every resident, the earnings of even highly skilled industrial workers were below the liability to income tax. If the pattern of local self-taxation on the Tredegar model had become the general pattern for health provision, this permanent daily need would not have become the plaything of central government financial policy.

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Anarchists cite this little, local example of an alternative approach to the provision of health care to indicate that a different style of social organization could have evolved. In British experience, another variety was to be found in the s and s in what became known as the Peckham Experiment in south London, which was essentially a family health club where medical care was a feature of a social club providing sporting and swimming facilities.

These and much more recent attempts to change the relationships in meeting universal social needs exemplify the urgency of the search for alternatives to the dreary polarity of public bureaucracy on the one hand and private profit on the other.


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It is often suggested that as a result of modern personal mobility and instant communications, we all live in a series of global villages and that consequently the concept of local control of local services is obsolete. But there is confusion here between the concepts of communities of propinquity and communities of interest. We may share concerns with people on the other side of the world, and not even know our neighbours.

But the picture is transformed at different stages in our personal or family history when we have shared interests with other users of the local primary school or health centre, and the local shop or post office. Here there is, as every parent will confirm, an intense concern with very local issues. Alternative patterns of social control of local facilities could have emerged, but for the fact that centralized government imposed national uniformity, while popular disillusionment with the bureaucratic welfare state coincided with the rise of the all-party gospel of managerial capitalism.

Anarchists claim that after the inevitable disappointment, an alternative concept of socialism will be rediscovered. They argue that the identification of social welfare with bureaucratic managerialism is one of the factors that has delayed the exploration of other approaches for half a century.


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  • The private sector, as it is called, is happy to take over the health needs of those citizens who can pay its bills. Other citizens would either have to suffer the minimal services that remain for them, or to re-create the institutions that they built up in the 19th century. The anarchists see their methods as more relevant than ever, waiting to be reinvented, precisely because modern society has learned the limitations of both socialist and capitalist alternatives.

    But another more recent change in the power structure of public services of every kind has been felt, for example, all through the education system. It is the rise to dominance of professional managers who are the new unassailable masters of every kind of institution. Middle-class professionals in, say, public health, environmental planning, schools and universities, and the social services have found themselves subjected to the same kind of managerial Newspeak that used to outrage working-class trade unionists. Mastery of its grotesque jargon has become the prerequisite for appointment and promotion throughout the job market, except in the submerged economy of hard repetitive work, where the old assumptions of insecurity, long hours, and low pay remain true.

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    The new managerialism has such insubstantial foundations and has aroused such resentment among people proud of their professional skills as was also true of skilled workers displaced by globalization that it is bound to be challenged by a new breed of advocates of workplace democracy. Already the authors of alternative textbooks of management are borrowing the language, if not the intentions, of the anarchists, for example with a manual entitled Managing Without Management , and another called Action and Existence: Anarchism for Business Administration.

    It seems inevitable that anarchist concepts will be reinvented or rediscovered continually, in fields never envisaged by the propagandists of the past, as people in so many areas of human activity search for alternatives to the crudities and injustices of both free-market capitalism and bureaucratic managerial socialism.

    It is possible to discern four principles that would shape an anarchist theory of organizations: that they should be 1 voluntary, 2 functional, 3 temporary, and 4 small. They should be voluntary and functional for obvious reasons. There is no point in advocating individual freedom and responsibility if we go on to set up organizations in which membership is mandatory, or which have no purpose. There is a tendency for bodies to continue to exist after having outlived their functions. They should be temporary precisely because permanence is one of those factors that hardens the arteries of any organization, giving it a vested interest in its own survival, or in serving the interests of its office-holders rather than performing its ostensible functions.

    Finally, they should be small because in small, face-to-face groups the bureaucratizing and hierarchical tendencies inherent in all organizations have least opportunity to develop. The 20th century experienced or witnessed every variety of state socialism, and learned that if its rulers are ruthless enough, they can impose, for a while, the most bizarre regimes and describe them as socialism. The 19th-century anarchist propaganda, in common with other varieties of socialist propaganda, frequently implied this, but I have seldom met 20th-century anarchists who admitted to this simple faith.

    If progress is the goal, for whom then are we working? Do you really wish to condemn human beings alive today to the mere sad role of caryatids supporting a floor for others one day to dance upon? A goal which is infinitely remote is not a goal at all, it is a deception. Each epoch, each generation, each life has had, and has, its own experience, and en route new demands grow, new methods. But because it is frequently suggested that anarchism is simply inappropriate for the scale of modern society, the concept of federalism is vital for any attempt to build an anarchist theory of organization.

    Anarchist approaches to federalism are fully discussed in Chapter 9. However, these are not the only issues that are raised when sceptics dismiss anarchism as a primitive ideology that is simply not relevant to the modern world.

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