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Ward, Colin.- What Will Anarchism Mean Tomorrow ?
Article published on 31 May 2004
last modification on 27 April 2015
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Colin Ward

At a party in Amsterdam to celebrate the 100th issue of De AS, which is an anarchist journal with the same format as THE RAVEN, I met a group of people intent on discussing the anarchist press. There were, for example, the group who produce De RAAF, the paper of the Amsterdam Federation of Anarchists, and those who still issue a bulletin called De Vrije Socialist, the title of a famous Dutch anarchist paper started in 1898. I thought I had escaped without making any of those rash promises we tend to give in a convivial atmosphere, but then I was cornered by a nice bunch of people who had just issued the 28th number of their anarchist quarterly Perspectief, from Ghent in Belgium. They wanted me to tell them my response to the question "What will anarchism mean tomorrow?" It is a topic I would be happy to evade, but, having been asked, this is what I have sent them.

To answer this question I have to begin with a series of propositions about the history of anarchism:

1. As a political ideology, anarchism was formulated in the 19th century by its founding fathers who, like those of other varieties of socialism - Marxist, Fabian, Social- Democratic - had an optimistic view of inevitable progress towards their goal. They all believed that the conquest of power by ’the people’, whether through parliamentary means or through direct action in the streets and factories or through armed struggle, would bring the changes they sought in society. In considering the failure of the anarchists to achieve this goal, we have to remember that bureaucratic state socialism of both social-democratic and Marxist types has failed too. Indeed, anarchists could claim that seventy years of experience of state socialism has delayed the socialist cause by a century.

2. The 19th century anarchists were unique in their rejection not only of capitalism but of the state itself. This was seen as proof that they were not to be taken seriously. Yet the whole history of the 20th century had justified them. It has been the century of total war, where the elimination of civilians has become accepted as the consequence of sophisticated weaponry, while the great powers have rivalled each other in selling the means of destruction to every little local dictator in the rest of the world. It has been the century in which mass extermination became the accepted policy of civilised states.

3. The 19th century anarchists looked forward confidently to popular revolutions that would open the way to what they saw as a ’free society’. Events were different. The Mexican revolution of 1911 resulted in the deaths and posthumous glorification of anarchist heroes like Zapata and Magon and the dominance for eighty years of the ironically-named Party of Revolutionary Institutions. The Russian revolution of 1917 resulted in the brutal suppression of the anarchists, and any other dissidents, by 1921 and then seventy years of Leninist-Stalinist dictatorship from which a new generation of anarchists have only recently emerged.

The Spanish revolution of 1936 brought the suppression of the anarchists long before the end of the civil war, and was followed by 35 years of Fascist dictatorship. How would Mexicans, Russians or Spaniards today respond to calls for revolution?

4. By the end of the 19th century some anarchists were beginning to formulate the doctrine of anarcho-syndicalism, seeking to turn every workshop dispute into a battle for control of the means of production. It denounced as a betrayal every agreement that the reformist trade unions won over wages, hours and conditions of work. The gains of the unions were written into the law in many countries. (In Franco’s Spain as much as in social-democratic Sweden.) By the 1990s employers all over Europe are seeking to avoid the rules with the aim of reducing the cost of labour to that in Taiwan or Colombia. Every Ford worker knows that industrial militancy will result in the multi-national company moving production to another country. This issue is at the heart of the British government’s abolition of minimum wage agreements, at the decision, as I write, of the Hoover company to shift production from France to England, and of the British government’s rejection of the ’ Social Protocol’ of the EC Maastricht treaty, and it affects the future strategy of the political left including the anarchists.

5. The 19th century anarchists, like the whole of the left, assumed that nationalism was a superstition that the 20th century would outgrow. They thought the same about religious beliefs. The last thing that they or anyone else envisaged was the late 20th century rise of militant religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Hindu. The result is that, like other non-religious, non-nationalistic people, we have no idea of how to approach these unwelcome phenomena. Do we attack religious revivalism with the risk of feeding rather than reducing its divisive power? Or do we anarchists, hostile though we are to the state, find ourselves defending the secular state against those organised minorities who want to use it for their own purposes? This may not yet be an issue for us but it is an issue in the United States in defending the secular state against Born Again Christians or for anarchists in Israel defending the secular state against ultra-orthodox Judaism or for Egyptian anarchists defending the institutions of the secular state against Islamic fundamentalism or in India defending the secular state against Hindu extremism.

To my mind, these five propositions about the difference between the world of the anarchists at the end of the 19th and of the 20th centuries result in the need for a different style of anarchist propaganda at the dawn of the 21st century. Faced by the eclipse not merely of anarchism but of the mainstream of socialism I think it important to stress, as I did twenty years ago in the book Anarchy in Action, that anarchism is not a theory of utopia but a theory of organisation. I agree with Paul Goodman’s remark that "A free society cannot be the substitution of a ’new order’ for the old order; it is the extension of spheres of free action until they make up most of social life".

This belief automatically excludes me from the ranks of those who think in terms of mass revolutions (whose first victims, whether in China or Cuba. have been the anarchists) but it includes me among those who, in the useful polarity posed by Murray Bookchin, in social ecology rather than in deep ecology. I think that the new support for anarchism in the 21st century will come not from Green parties but from the broader Green movement.

Inevitably the ideas of the 19th century anarchists were Eurocentric, even when they were brought to Japan, China and the cities of Latin America by students and immigrants. But one of the anarchist enlargements of the late 20th century is the contribution from a different style of anarchist thinking, with a different label, from the Sarvodaya movement in India and from the evolution of self-help self-employed settlements in Africa, South Asia and Latin America. The triumphs of the unofficial economy, keeping society going in the hopeless climate of South America in the face of a predatory ruling class and a military caste which shifts periodically into state terrorism, is now classified as basismo, a society which has to build itself from the base.

I believe that an intelligent 21st century anarchism will draw on its links with the worlds of the Green movement and with the unofficial and informal economies of the poor world, as well as those of the poor in the rich world, to draw anarchist lessons on human survival. I think that the lessons of the 20th century enhance the anarchist message, but that our language has to take account of new and complicated social order.


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