As stated elsewhere on this site, I am an anarchist. The whole purpose of my other blog, Property is Theft!, is to expand upon exactly what that means both in theory and in practice. However, as a starting point for those unfamiliar with anarchism (and with me), I thought it might be useful to outline the basic points.
The popular perception of anarchy, held by most, is of a complete breakdown of law and order where looters, rioters, thugs, and gangsters run amok – in other words, chaos. This is not true. Rather, those who seek anarchy seek the reordering of society based upon the principles of liberty, equality, community, and solidarity.
For anarchists, all hierarchical structures face a heavy burden of proof to demonstrate that they are necessary for the good of the masses. If they fail to meet this burden, then they are illegitimate andmust be dismantled. Traditionally, the most prominent failures in this regard (and thus the major focus of the anarchist movement, are the state, the church, and private property.
Although I intend to come back to the issue in more depth, it is important to address the inevitable objections to the statement that anarchists are against private property. When considering the position that “property is theft,” it is important to take into account the distinction between “private property” and “personal possessions.”
Property, perhaps better termed “capital”, is that which is taken from the common land and leased back to the masses in exchange for their money, labour, or servitude. A house bought in order to rent to others, or a corporate enterprise in which you employ labour, is property. It is a notion born from and upheld by coercive force.
Possessions, on the other hand, are things used for private use that do not steal common land or the freedom of others. This includes your toothbrush, your clothes and even private houses used for your own residence that do not infringe on common land used for production or prevent other people having a place to sleep.
The important distinction is that anarchists advocate not property but possession, ie occupancy and use, whereby the users of an area are its owners. This is as opposed to the capitalist insistence that the owner of a territory is also its ruler, correctly defined as monarchy.
Those who find themselves attracted to anarchist ideas but are concerned that an anarchist society would strip them of their house and force them to live in a commune worry needlessly. Anarchism is only against property in the capitalist sense of the word.
Does this make us communists, then? Yes, but we are not Marxists. As anarchist Mikhail Bakunin pointed out, Marxism offers only a recipe for tyranny;
They [the Marxists] maintain that only a dictatorship – their dictatorship, of course – can create the will of the people, while our answer to this is: No dictatorship can have any other aim but that of self-perpetuation, and it can beget only slavery in the people tolerating it; freedom can be created only by freedom, that is, by a universal rebellion on the part of the people and free organization of the toiling masses from the bottom up.
As such, anarchists are libertarian communists. In Bakunin’s words, just as “we are convinced that freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice,” we also hold “that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality.”
So, what would this anarchist society, eschewing both capitalism and Marxist communism, look like? The best practical example of such is the anarchist revolution that took place during the Spanish Civil War, as summed up by Murray Bookchin, whom Sam Dolgoff cited in his work The Anarchist Collectives;
In Spain, during almost three years, despite a civil war that took a million lives, despite the opposition of the political parties . . . this idea of libertarian communism was put into effect. Very quickly more than 60% of the land was very quickly collectively cultivated by the peasants themselves, without landlords, without bosses, and without instituting capitalist competition to spur production. In almost all the industries, factories, mills, workshops, transportation services, public services, and utilities, the rank and file workers, their revolutionary committees, and their syndicates reorganised and administered production, distribution, and public services without capitalists, high-salaried managers, or the authority of the state.
Even more: the various agrarian and industrial collectives immediately instituted economic equality in accordance with the essential principle of communism, ‘From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs.’ They co-ordinated their efforts through free association in whole regions, created new wealth, increased production (especially in agriculture), built more schools, and bettered public services. They instituted not bourgeois formal democracy but genuine grass roots functional libertarian democracy, where each individual participated directly in the revolutionary reorganisation of social life. They replaced the war between men, ’survival of the fittest,’ by the universal practice of mutual aid, and replaced rivalry by the principle of solidarity.
This experience, in which about eight million people directly or indirectly participated, opened a new way of life to those who sought an alternative to anti-social capitalism on the one hand, and totalitarian state bogus socialism on the other.
Martha A. Ackelsberg, in The Free Women of Spain, tells us that the results of this social revolution were staggering;
The achievements of these collectives were extensive. In many areas they maintained, if not increased, agricultural production [not forgetting that many young men were at the front line], often introducing new patterns of cultivation and fertilisation. . . collectivists built chicken coups, barns, and other facilities for the care and feeding of the community’s animals. Federations of collectives co-ordinated the construction of roads, schools, bridges, canals and dams. Some of these remain to this day as lasting contributions of the collectives to the infrastructure of rural Spain.
Gaston Leval, both in Dolgoff’s work and his own Collectives in the Spanish Revolution, tells how the work and success of the collectives also disproved the old capitalist fallacy that only free enterprise and competition breeds innovation and creativity;
Carcagente is situated in the southern part of the province of Valencia. The climate of the region is particularly suited for the cultivation of oranges. . . . All of the socialised land, without exception, is cultivated with infinite care. The orchards are thoroughly weeded. To assure that the trees will get all the nourishment needed, the peasants are incessantly cleaning the soil. ‘Before,’ they told me with pride, ‘all this belonged to the rich and was worked by miserably paid labourers. The land was neglected and the owners had to buy immense quantities of chemical fertilisers, although they could have gotten much better yields by cleaning the soil. . . .’ With pride, they showed me trees that had been grafted to produce better fruit.
In many places I observed plants growing in the shade of the orange trees. ‘What is this?,’ I asked. I learned that the Levant peasants (famous for their ingenuity) have abundantly planted potatoes among the orange groves. The peasants demonstrate more intelligence than all the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture combined. They do more than just plant potatoes. Throughout the whole region of the Levant, wherever the soil is suitable, they grow crops. They take advantage of the four month [fallow period] in the rice fields. Had the Minister of Agriculture followed the example of these peasants throughout the Republican zone, the bread shortage problem would have been overcome in a few months.
Because, in fact, self-management encourages innovation.
The theoreticians and partisans of the liberal economy affirm that competition stimulates initiative and, consequently, the creative spirit and invention without which it remains dormant. Numerous observations made by the writer in the Collectives, factories and socialised workshops permit him to take quite the opposite view. For in a Collective, in a grouping where each individual is stimulated by the wish to be of service to his fellow beings research, the desire for technical perfection and so on are also stimulated. But they also have as a consequence that other individuals join those who were first to get together. Furthermore, when, in present society, an individualist inventor discovers something, it is used only by the capitalist or the individual employing him, whereas in the case of an inventor living in a community not only is his discovery taken up and developed by others, but is immediately applied for the common good. I am convinced that this superiority would very soon manifest itself in a socialised society.
Of course, these collectives never survived, but we mustn’t forget – as Saturnino Carod, tells us in Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain – that the reason for this is the problems faced during a civil war, with Nazi-Germany backed General Franco’s forces and the Communists both undermining them at every turn.
Always expecting to be stabbed in the back, always knowing that if we created problems, only the enemy across the lines would stand to gain. It was a tragedy for the anarcho-syndicalist movement; but it was a tragedy for something greater — the Spanish people. For it can never be forgotten that it was the working class and peasantry which, by demonstrating their ability to run industry and agriculture collectively, allowed the republic to continue the struggle for thirty-two months. It was they who created a war industry, who kept agricultural production increasing, who formed militias and later joined the army. Without their creative endeavour, the republic could not have fought the war . . .
I will make a couple of final points on revolutionary Spain as an example of anarchism in practice. On the issue of productivity and the oft-used prediction that had it not been destroyed it would have “collapsed in on itself,” I think Murray Bookchin’s Introduction to Dolgoff’s work sums up the era quite aptly;
[i]n Spain, millions of people took large segments of the economy into their own hands, collectivised them, administered them, even abolished money and lived by communistic principles of work and distribution — all of this in the midst of a terrible civil war, yet without producing the chaos or even the serious dislocations that were and still are predicted by authoritarian ‘radicals.’ Indeed, in many collectivised areas, the efficiency with which an enterprise worked by far exceeded that of a comparable one in nationalised or private sectors. This ‘green shoot’ of revolutionary reality has more meaning for us than the most persuasive theoretical arguments to the contrary. On this score it is not the anarchists who are the ‘unrealistic day-dreamers,’ but their opponents who have turned their backs to the facts or have shamelessly concealed them.
From this passage, as well as the others I have already cited, it becomes quite clear that the social revolution in Spain was no anomaly, nor “brief, but massive, increases in effort and productivity” that “does not last.” Anarchist collectivism is not comparable to what Dolgoff calls “totalitarian state bogus socialism” of the USSR and China, as it requires no over-inflated and oppressive “red bureaucracy” to work. In fact it is the antithesis of such a thing, as well as of capitalism, because the anarchists saw the inherent flaws in Marxism from the very beginning.
As for those anarchists who entered government during the war, their actions in bringing about the downfall of the revolution cannot be excused. However, it must be noted that this did not occur out of any recognition “that government was inevitable.” The CNT’s collaboration with the government started with the foundation of government leader Louis Company’s “Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias” and from there moved to the central government as a way of coordinating their activities. It is unfortunate that, as well as determining themselves to fight off Franco’s forces, the liberals and communists were also determined to put an end to a revolution that mobilised and empowered the masses. To this end, they put forth bills that appeared beneficient but in fact brought an end to the collectives – and, in a telling demonstration of how vital the anarchist movement was, to the anti-fascist resistance itself – and the anarchist ministers allowed themselves to be deceived by the lure of power into signing them.
This indeed shows that “people are fallible,” but it also proves Bakunin’s maxim that if “you want to make it impossible for anyone to oppress his fellow-man” you must “make sure that no one shall possess power.” And, as Vernon Richards wrote in Lessons of the Spanish Revolution, “the basis of [this] criticism is not that anarchist ideas were proved to be unworkable by the Spanish experience, but that the Spanish anarchists and syndicalists failed to put their theories to the test, adopting instead the tactics of the enemy.”
This turn of events also says more of the complexities of the war and the fragile nature of the anti-fascist coalition than of anarchism as a movement. To quote Gaston Leval, the “general preoccupation [of the majority of the population was] to defeat the fascists . . . the anarchists would, if they came out against the state, provoke the antagonism . . . of the majority of the people, who would accuse them of collaborating with Franco.”
But what if people don’t want to be part of a commune or collective? That’s fine, you don’t have to be, it certainly wan’t forced during the Spanish Revolution and to do so would be contrary to anarchist principles. Even if someone chooses to live within the bounds of a community, but not to participate in collective works, anarchists would not have an issue. Obvioulsy they could not benefit from the fruits of the labour they had no part in and may have to trade for services, but they would not be ostracised or forced out. In Errico Malatesta’s words, “free and voluntary communism is ironical if one has not the right and the possibility to live in a different regime, collectivist, mutualist, individualist – as one wishes, always on condition that there is no oppression or exploitation of others.”
What if people want to trade in an open market for currency? That’s fine too, with the above reservations in regard to capitalism. In an anarchist world, each community would be autonomous and interaction between each community would be through loose federation and free association. So, even with each community operating “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” when a community lacks something that another has excess of, there clearly has to be some kind of trade system in place, taking any form those trading so choose.
So what can’t you have in an anarchist society, then? Simple – hierarchy, oppression, exploitation, and authority. Neither collective nor individual ownership of the means of production (ie self-employment or syndicalism) embodies these things. Private ownership (ie bosses) does, as elaborated above.
The point has also been made countless times that human nature itself is an argument against anarchism. The common line is that “people are fallible” and that “if you get a group of people together and invite them all to participate in producing something they feel disoriented and insecure.” This, I think, betrays how right-wing Libertarianism – in particular, as this is primarily a capitalist criticism of free socialism – ceases to be libertarian when it comes to economics. These thoughts echo those of countless elitists and authoritarians, from feudalists, communists, and fascists through to conservative capitalists, that the people are “too stupid” to know what is best for them, and therefore “men of best quality” must rule over them, “just as you do not allow children to roam unsupervised.”
In fact, participatory communities and mutual aid institutions have long been a driving factor in human, indeed all, evolution, as Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid argues. Rampant individualism is relatively new to human society, and a product not of our nature but of nurture. It is the systems that arose around us that encouraged behaviours contrary to the mutual aid principle in more than a tiny minority – just as feudalism encourages servitude and blind faith breeds fanaticism, capitalism encourages selfishness and shallow greed.
Kropotkin concludes this line of thought much better than I can;
When we hear men saying that Anarchists imagine men much better than they really are, we merely wonder how intelligent people can repeat that nonsense. Do we not say continually that the only means of rendering men less rapacious and egotistic, less ambitious and less slavish at the same time, is to eliminate those conditions which favour the growth of egotism and rapacity, of slavishness and ambition?