On the Popularity of Anarchism

This past weekend, I attended an anti-war rally organized by a peace coalition in Chicago. Although several thousand demonstrators showed up, I still felt that at this stage in the war there should have been many thousands more. As usual, the media hardly covered the event.

There was an especially strong presence of sectarian groups, each with its own pamphlet station, including some Trotskyist organizations I had never heard of before. (Trot-watching is like bird-watching, there are common Spartacists and ISOers and then there are rarer species.) News and Letters and Solidarity both deserve props for being the only two non-authoritarian groups to table. * Peering down the row of literature tables of wanna-be Bolshevik parties, a News and Letters member sighed, “these groups…they never grow and they never die.”

As I watched a ferocious argument between Spartacists and members of the Socialist Equality Party over the “class nature” of the Chinese Communist Party, I realized why the socialist tradition is so unappealing to so many young people: It’s because socialists are nuts. And, when they’re not crazy, they’re boring and pedantic.

Enter anarchism, or as some anarchists prefer, “anarchy.” Where the stale rhetoric of the Marxist left turns off young troublemakers hungry for an emancipatory politics, anarchism extends its welcoming hand and offers its own critique of capitalism.

Whenever I’m in a left-wing bookstore I make a bee-line for the anarchist magazines. Sure, anarchists have no workable plan for universal health care or for addressing the sub-prime mortgage crisis … and their principles effectively prohibit them from meaningfully supporting progressive legislation or reforms. But Goddammit, anarchists are also the only radicals who are producing consistently humorous and emotionally stirring literature. Some of the more politically problematic “post-left” anarchist outfits also put out the best material. The prolific pamphleteers at CrimethInc, for example, make the best political graphic art around. Their absurd 2006 May Day poster captures the spirit of that radical worker’s holiday perfectly and their various writings on 9/11 and terrorism offer some important insights.

In a way, anarchism is a living fossil of the optimistic, free-wheeling 19th century left. For the most part, anarchists never invested themselves in authoritarian projects (on the contrary, the Red Army mowed down a good many anarchists). This means that the anarchist idea is largely unburdened by the moral horrors of the last 100 years. I think Emma Goldman was briefly hoodwinked by the Bolshies, but Kropotkin’s verdict on the Lenin & Co. needs not one word of revision. This is in stark contrast to the parties and personalities of the Second International, which were (at least for a short while) almost universally enthusiastic about Lenin’s coup…even our dear Gene Debs declared, “From the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, I am a Bolshevik.”

Democratic socialists, i.e. those democratic socialists that dream of something beyond the welfare-state, can learn from the current popularity of anarchism. We need to get over hang-ups of 1917 and reclaim the spirit of revolt. Explaining to Americans that we are reasonable, pragmatic socialists and that the socialist idea is perfectly respectable in Europe is not working. Moreover it’s dishonest, the social democratic parties of Europe have largely abandoned socialism and I, for one, am not flying my red flag for Gordon Brown or Gerhard Schroeder.


* DSA had a contingent and a very snazzy orange banner.

Let’s also remember that anarchists are our historical cousins, the distinction between anarchists and socialists is a relatively late development and, for the most part, left anarchists have advocated some kind of stateless, socialist economic arrangement. Kropotkin would have happily called himself a “communist.”

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