Anarchism without Anarchy


[This post originally appeared at the Center for a Stateless Society, as part of the Mutual Exchange on Anarchy and Democracy.]

Anarchism without Anarchy
[including a response to Wayne Price]

The rampant dictatorial governments in Italy, Spain and Russia, which arouse such envy and longing among the more reactionary and timid parties across the world, are supplying dispossessed ‘democracy’ with a sort of new virginity. Thus we see the creatures of the old regimes, well-accustomed to the wicked art of politics, responsible for repression and massacres of working people, re-emerging – where they do not lack the courage – and presenting themselves as men of progress, seeking to capture the near future in the name of liberation. And, given the situation, they could even succeed.—Errico Malatesta, “Democracy and Anarchy” (March, 1924)

In my lead essay, I approached our topic as if it was a foregone conclusion that anarchism should be understood in terms of the pursuit of anarchy, however lengthy or perhaps even interminable that pursuit might be. But for those who champion a “pure,” “true” or “direct” democracy as the political goal of anarchists, thorny problems are sometimes “solved” by simply setting the concept of anarchy aside and defining anarchism in terms of a certain number of practical reforms to be achieved and a certain range of existing institutions to be abolished.

Obviously, for an anarchism without anarchy, the considerations would be very different from those I addressed in my opening comments, but could such a construction of anarchism really be considered a revolutionary alternative? I want to consider some of what is at stake here.

There are, I suppose, precedents for considering anarchy and anarchism as fundamentally separable concepts. After all, anarchists went for something like thirty-five years without a widespread concept of anarch-ism or even much in the way of shared assumptions or terminology, beyond the affirmation of anarchy. The word “anarchism” may actually be first attributable to the lexicographers, who, perhaps assuming that every –ist needs an –ism, seem to have included the term in their dictionaries before any anarchist thought to coin it. Joseph Déjacque appears to have been the first anarchist to use the term anarchism, in 1859—six years after it appeared in the Dictionnaire universel—but it wasn’t until the 1870s that the term caught on widely.

This means that pioneers like Proudhon and Bakunin really lived, as anarchists—active proponents of anarchy—in a world without anarchism (at least in any explicit sense.) That’s a striking fact, in the context of a period where constructions of that sort were nearly as plentiful as social theorists—or more plentiful, if we count the mass of similar terms coined by figures like Charles Fourier or Stephen Pearl Andrews. And we probably shouldn’t think of it as an accident or oversight.

Indeed, there are details here that it might be helpful to pursue, if only to underline the qualities of that pursuit of anarchy before anarchism, but, without belaboring the point any more, let’s just recognize that the separability of the two concepts is not just a theoretical possibility, but that it was the reality for an important period in the development of what we now think of as anarchism. But I think we also have to recognize that it is a very different matter for anarchism to go without anarchy, as sometimes seems to be the case in the present, than it was for anarchists to go without any form of anarchism in their pursuit of anarchy.

The question, then, is whether or not this notion of an anarchism without anarchy really describes the position of the “democratic anarchists.” Certainly, in Wayne Price’s three essays on the question of anarchism and democracy—and now his response to my initial essay—anarchy is strikingly absent. It is not just absent as a part of Price’s own approach to the question, but it is almost entirely absent, appearing in quotations from me or from Malatesta. My impression is that this is also not simply an accident or oversight.

Price’s initial contribution to the exchange, “Democracy, Anarchism, & Freedom,” champions democracy as the “rule of the commoners” and defines anarchism as “democracy without the state.” So we are left with an anarchism defined as “stateless rule.” He correctly observes that some of us object to the notion of any form of “rule,” tout court—and I will be happy to count myself among those who reject even the sort of “no rulers, but not no rules” formula that we sometimes encounter in anarchist circles. But perhaps the most striking bit of the essay is Price’s claim that “the aim of anarchism is not to end absolutely all coercion, but to reduce coercion to the barest minimum possible.”

I suppose that this is an attempt on his part to avoid defining anarchism in terms of impossible, utopian goals. He follows this claim with the observation that “there will never be a perfect society.” But it isn’t clear how the question of a “perfect” society really relates to anarchist aspirations. Presumably, in context, this is a claim about the possibility of ending all coercion, but, if the goal of anarchism is “to reduce coercion to the barest minimum possible,” how would we distinguish, in principle, between the overwhelming majority of coercions, which it is indeed within the aims of anarchism to eliminate, and that “barest minimum” of presumably “democratic” coercions which it is not the aim of anarchism to eliminate? The difference between a barest minimum and zero seems to be negligible, and it isn’t clear why that tiny remainder is not simply attributable to the fact that the world doesn’t always cooperate with even the best of our principles.

It would seem to me that there really is no way to make aiming for the “barest minimum” a consistent principle, and that imagining we would only have an aim—or ideal, a word that Price is happy to use in the context of democracy—that was always achievable in all regards seems at least a matter of setting our sights a bit low.

No—honestly—it seems like setting those sights inexplicably, impossibly low. I quite simply find the conception of anarchism as a form of rule impossible to wrap my head around. It seems to me that the (presumably practical) argument here has to be that a non-governmental society is impossible—that anarchy is impossible. But because the rationale for aiming short of anarchy—explicitly as an ideal—seems so uncertain to me, I can only wonder if the other half of the largely unstated argument is that anarchy is also undesirable.

It seems to be fairly consistently the case that the defense of democracy is tied to claims like the one Price makes that “[a]narchists are not against all social coordination, community decision-making, and protection of the people.” It’s not a particularly bold claim, in part because it’s fairly vague. You could probably find staunch anarchist individualists who could find a sense in which they fully agree. But it seems likely that the interpretations of the phrase the individualist would find friendly to their beliefs might seem dangerously un-coordinated, anti-social—anarchic, in the negative sense of the term—to the defender of democracy.

There has always been a faction among the anarchists who wrestled with the terminology of anarchy, whether because it seems to indicate dangerous and undesirable things or because it seems to indicate too many things all at once. And there has probably also always been another that is just a little too comfortable with the simultaneously edgy and protean quality of that terminology. If I had to characterize what seem to me the most powerful sorts of anarchist praxis (not a term I’m fond of, but maybe one that is useful in this context), it seems to me that they have remained actively engaged in all that is really anarchic about anarchism. But I suspect that a construction like “anarchist democracy” comes from a different place entirely.

I’ll admit that I find a position like Price’s difficult to engage constructively. As I understand anarchism, it is an ambitious project, involving a revolutionary change in social principles. I believe that there is a meaningful distinction between relations based in authority and those grounded in anarchy, and that there is a vast range of relations possible within both regimes. I understand that Price’s initial essay could not be expected to address those arguments, nor the rigorous approach I’ve attempted to take towards notions like “self-government,” nor to the specific arguments I’ve drawn from Proudhon’s works. But when the direct response comes in the form of a suggestion that we “leave aside” essentially all of that, followed by the question of whether or not I “really” just agree with the anarchist-democrats, well, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t all a bit infuriating.

From my perspective, I am not the one who “seems to want to have his cake and eat it too.” I have ideals and expectations, and a clear enough sense of the difficulties facing the anarchist project that I am not expecting the sudden and complete realization of my principles. As a result, I’ve quite explicitly said that the anarchist project will “necessarily confront [us] with failure on a pretty regular basis, particularly in the long and difficult transition from a fundamentally authoritarian, governmentalist society to one that begins to resemble, in practical terms, our political ideals.” That seems more like commitment to the project, even if the cake is a lie, in part because the proposed alternative, “modifying our ideals and retaining some ‘pure’ form of democracy”—and retaining it precisely as a goal and as if it was not in contradiction with anarchist principles—seems “truly untenable.”

I just can’t find it in me to consider a system in which we take turns (hopefully) coercing one another as a means of “social coordination, community decision-making, and protection of the people” as the goal of anarchism. Of course, I know the anarchist literature well enough that I could easily pull some quotes to suggest that identification, or something even more authoritarian. Consider this, from Bakunin: “I receive and I give—such is human life. Each is a directing authority and each is directed in his turn.” Anarchy is ubiquitous authority—or anarchy is impossible. Or, perhaps, “considerations of what Proudhon and Bakunin really meant,” when addressed with care and consistency, are not easily separable from our discussions.

I think we all know that a discussion like this is necessarily going to be complicated by long histories of complex, sometimes contradictory or even nearly incoherent rhetorical choices. I would hope that most of us would be concerned with reducing the ambiguities as much as possible. But that’s difficult, and I think there is a lesson there for those who think of the language of democracy as a particularly precious commodity, since it has been the focus of popular aspirations in the past. When we look at works like What is Property? and “God and the State,” we might be forgiven for thinking that they are powerful works of anarchist theory despite the confusing rhetorical flourishes. Of course, for those who do not envision a complete break with the principle of authority, the potential confusions involved with this definition of anarchism as stateless democracy are not so great. But for those of us who do envision such a break, they seem tremendous.

I should probably leave things there, at least for now, but I did want to circle back around to the two essays by Malatesta that Price has discussed in his essay “Anarchism as Extreme Democracy.” This is the one place where he does cite Malatesta on anarchy. The context is “Neither Democrats, nor Dictators: Anarchists,” an essay from 1926, in which Malatesta argues that “the so-called democratic system can only be a lie, and one which serves to deceive the mass of the people and keep them docile with an outward show of sovereignty….” He discusses various democratic scenarios, the “worst” of which seems to be the rise of the socialists and anarchists to power, and then ends with the two paragraphs that Price cites in part:

This is why we are neither for a majority nor for a minority government; neither for democracy not for dictatorship.

We are for the abolition of the gendarme. We are for the freedom of all and for free agreement, which will be there for all when no one has the means to force others, and all are involved in the good running of society. We are for anarchy.

In his essay, Price suggests that Malatesta “mixes up” a critique of “democratic ideology as a rationalization for capitalism and the state” with “a denunciation of the very concept of majority rule.” But how much mix-up can there be, when the goal seems to be circumstances where it is not only true that “all are involved in the good running of society,” but it is also true that “one has the means to force others”?

In the 1924 essay “Democracy and Anarchy,” Malatesta perhaps throws a little additional light on the title of the later piece, arguing that democrats and dictators are locked, and lock the rest of us, in a vicious circle:

We are not democrats for, among other reasons, democracy sooner or later leads to war and dictatorship. Just as we are not supporters of dictatorships, among other things, because dictatorship arouses a desire for democracy, provokes a return to democracy, and thus tends to perpetuate a vicious circle in which human society oscillates between open and brutal tyranny and a the and lying freedom.

And it is in this context that one should probably read the quote, from this same essay, with which I chose to open this response. When we are attempting to ground these discussions in current events, the warning here seems like one that we should at least serious consider.

And, ultimately, it is serious consideration that emerges as the lesson of Malatesta’s essay. He urges “greater precision of language, in the conviction that once the phrases are dissected”—specifically the phrases of the democratic politicians—the comrades “themselves will see how vacuous they are.” Then he ends, as I will, with an interesting passage suggesting a rather different relationship, I think, between society and democracy then we usually see in the works of the anarchist democrats:

Therefore, those who really want ‘government of the people’ in the sense that each can assert his or her own will, ideas and needs, must ensure that no-one, majority or minority, can rule over others; in other words, they must abolish government, meaning any coercive organisation, and replace it with the free organisation of those with common interests and aims.

This would be very simple if every group and individual could live in isolation and on their own, in their own way, supporting themselves independently of the rest, supplying their own material and moral needs.

But this is not possible, and if it were, it would not be desirable because it would mean the decline of humanity into barbarism and savagery.

If they are determined to defend their own autonomy, their own liberty, every individual or group must therefore understand the ties of solidarity that bind them to the rest of humanity, and possess a fairly developed sense of sympathy and love for their fellows, so as to know how voluntarily to make those sacrifices essential to life in a society that brings the greatest possible benefits on every given occasion.

But above all it must be made impossible for some to impose themselves on, and sponge off, the vast majority by material force.

Let us abolish the gendarme, the man armed in the service of the despot, and in one way or another we shall reach free agreement, because without such agreement, free or forced, it is not possible to live.

But even free agreement will always benefit most those who are intellectually and technically prepared. We therefore recommend to our friends and those who truly wish the good of all, to study the most urgent problems, those that will require a practical solution the very day that the people shake off the yoke that oppresses them.

(April 22, 2017)


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.