April Carter, The Political Theory of Anarchism, 1971.


This study has tried to demonstrate that anarchist ideas are directly related to the more orthodox concepts and concerns of political theory, and closely allied to other major political traditions. It has also attempted to show that anarchism has acquired more, rather than less, relevance in contemporary political, economic and technical conditions. While the last chapter suggested that those forms of anarchism which seem to be least political often, in fact, promote a sense of individual social responsibility. Standing aside ffom conventionally conceived politics may paradoxically enable anarchists to realize certain values of citizenship, and an ideal of political community, almost lost within the present meaning of 'polities'.

Nevertheless, this standing aside from the political arena entails at the same time a serious theoretical and practical weakness. A pure anarchism cannot fully meet the constitutionalist demand for immediate political responsibility, because it refuses to consider the possible necessity of compromise with the bad to prevent the worse. This form of consistency has its virtues, especially when it takes the form of resistance to State policies in a primarily conformist society; but its value is largely predicated on it being a minority position. Guerin points to the incoherence of the anarchist position on voting (L'Anarchisme, 22-3). He quotes Malatesta, who maintained in relation to the new 'Cartel des Gaudies', formed for the May, 1924, French election, that even if some small amount of progress might be achieved through the election, the anarchists should retain their revolutionary purity and boycott the polls. On the other hand, the Bakuninists in the First International had protested that boycotting the polls was not an article of faith but a matter of tactics. The anarchists in Spain oscillated between these two positions, joining with the democratic Parties in 1930 to overthrow Primo de Rivera, counselling abstention in the 1933 general election, and in 1936, though supporting the Popular Front, half-heartedly advising abstention -- advice they did not expect to be heeded.

Secondly, anarchism has not yet been able to meet the Marxist demand for political effectiveness; and continuous failure can only be translated into a form of glory by appealing to non-political values. The nature of anarchist theory means that in any important political crisis individuals who seek to influence events by accepting [106] a leadership position -- for example, in a 'government' -- are open to charges of gross inconsistency or treachery to the cause. Similarly at the level of mass action anarchists prepared to sink their differences in a united front, or to ally themselves with a popular movement, may be torn between the importance of action and maintaining their principles. During the Russian Revolution and Civil War anarchists were split not only on the question of whether to support the Bolsheviks, but on their attitude to the popular peasant 'anarchism' of Makhno's movement. As a guide to action Marxism has an advantage, since it refrains from imposing abstract and inflexible principles upon political evaluation of a total situation.

Nevertheless, tactical flexibility has its own traps, and one of the most important contributions of anarchism to political theory is its critique of Marxist 'success', and insistence on relating means to ends. Emma Goldman comments in My Disillusionment with Russia that she came to realize that the Bolsheviks believed that the end justifies all means:

Any suggestion of the value of human life, quality of character, the importance of revolutionary integrity as the basis of a new social order, was repudiated as 'bourgeois' sentimentality (70).

Anarchists themselves are split between those who regard all forms of violence as brutalizing, and believe violent means are incompatible with the goal of an anarchist society; and those who think that a degree of violence may often be necessary, or inevitable. Emma Goldman, who is in the latter category, distinguishes between types of 'violence':

It is quite one thing to employ violence in combat, as a means of defence. It is quite another thing to make a principle of terrorism, to institutionalize it, to assign it the most vital place in the social struggle. Such terrorism begets counter-revolution and in turn itself becomes counter-revolutionary (xix).

Within the anarchist tradition there is not only a critique of the abuse of power after a revolution, but an important criticism of the romantic theory of revolution -- the belief that a revolution which breaks decisively with the past will automatically promote a new social era. Instead it is urged that building up the institutions of a new society is a long term process, which must be started here and now. A revolution which cannot build on creative tendencies and institutional forms already in existence is likely to become increasingly destructive, and resurrect coercive centralized power. This approach goes beyond Stirner's distinction between a politically directed 'revolution' leading to a new State, and a spontaneous [107] insurrection destroying all political power; and it underlines the dangers of the Bakuninist ideal of rebellion. It is one of the contributions to anarchist thought made by Landauer, who, drawing on both Proudhon and Kropotkin, appeals to the communal traditions of the past. 'The radical reformer will find nothing to reform except what is there' (Buber, Paths in Utopia, 49). Landauer's aim is in Buber's phrase 'a revolutionary conservation'. But it can be understood without Landauer's 'conservative' overtones. Landauer himself looked to the new working class institutions of the co-operatives and trade unions:

We want to bring the Co-operatives, which are socialist in form without socialist content, and the trade-unions, which are valour without avail -- to Socialism, to great experiments (54).

The distinction made by Landauer between a social principle and a political principle suggests two important modes of action appropriate to anarchism. One is to build up independent communities^ and organizations within the existing State, and so create a new society in embryo, and an alternative power base. The other is to erode the power of those at the top -- a power in reality springing from the co-operative action of the social group as a whole -- by withdrawing co-operation and refusing to obey orders. If non-co-operation were adopted on a mass scale the 'power' of the men at the top would cease to exist. Both these approaches are wholly consistent with anarchist principles, and both are potentially effective. The snag is that both must be linked to some form of popular movement if they are to have immediate impact; and to achieve ultimate success they must be part of a strategy which can force changes in policy at a national level, and eventually overthrow the powers-that-be. Hence both approaches may still require political compromises.

The relevance of both approaches when anarchism is linked to an existing movement was demonstrated by the development of syndicalism. Trade union organization provided an institutional base which could be strengthened in immediate struggles, extended to constructive experiments in forms of workers' control, and could be seen as an alternative administrative framework in the future. Trade union activity could link people's immediate interests to wider long term goals. The strike provided a potent means of direct action, which could be supplemented by boycotts and sabotage; and trade union struggle could be extended to the seizure and control of the factories. The general strike held out the promise of achieving specific political goals, like prevention of war, and of ultimately achieving the overthrow of the government and the capitalist class. Syndicalism has [108] built-in dangers of authoritarian organizational tendencies, or of trade union reformism arising out of immediate demands for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions. As Nicolas Walter comments (Anarchy No. 100). these problems are not in themselves an argument against syndicalism; he criticizes it rather for its Marxist emphasis on exclusively working class militancy (178).

Another area in which anarchism has come into its own, and can point to striking temporary successes, is in that tradition of popular revolutionary experience which has thrown up the organizational system of workers and communal councils. This tendency, which can be traced to the French Revolution, has been demonstrated recently in Hungary and Poland in 1956, and in France in May 1968. With the exception of Spain in the 1930s, the council system has not been directly inspired by an organized anarchist movement, and conscious anarchist influence has often been totally absent. The symbol of the communal council, or local soviet, has been incorporated also into both official and unofficial Marxism. More surprisingly, it has certain attractions for constitutionalist theorists. De Jouvenel, drawing on Montesquieu, creates in his book, Power, an abstract outline of a confederation of councils as an alternative to party-based parliamentary democracy. Since the emergence of the workers' Soviets in Hungary in November 1956, Hannah Arendt has explored this approach to democracy in detail in On Revolution. But in her constitutionalist version the councils are assigned an exclusively 'political' role and deemed inappropriate to management of industry, and so are denuded of their specifically socialist character. Whilst under Marxism the councils tend to be divested of their truly democratic character -- rapidly the case in Russia after 1917; and partly true today in Yugoslavia, where they are still to some extent subordinate to the Party as well as to the central government. Anarchists can, therefore, perhaps claim that their theory is more in tune with the aspirations which have been shown by the movements which have embraced this form of social organization.

One important respect in which anarchism appears to represent the embryonic institutional ideas of the council movements is in their advocacy of confederation built up from below as an alternative to the centralized power of the State, a power making at most concessions towards deconcentration of administrative authority. The idea of confederation put forward successively by the major anarchist theorists provides a potential bridge between the anarchism adapted to a small community and the need for co-ordination in modern industrial society.

The promise of confederation lies, however, partly in its ambiguity. For example, though Bakunin follows Proudhon in emphasizing the [109] organizational role of the local commune, as well as of producers' associations, this may not be entirely consistent with his stress on large scale industry. On the one hand, there arise questions, which have tended to divide anarchists and syndicalists, about the relative role of the local commune and industry-based trade unions. On the other, wider questions of economic planning arise. Some of these problems may be resolved by voluntary agreement on standardization, as in the popular anarchist example of inter-continental railway networks. Some may be resolved by strictly functional delegation to specialized bodies, or by the creation of reserve emergency powers subject to political restrictions. And given the noteworthy failures of over-centralized planning it would be rash to dismiss the possibility of economic co-ordination on a confederal basis. But there are still major questions about the size of the basic units involved and about the mechanics of communication and decision making.

There are also questions about the permanence and formality of the organization involved. A confederal constitution and planning organization tend to conflict with Kropotkin's emphasis on no formal 'government' and on spontaneous co-ordination and federation. They would also conflict with the four principles of anarchist organization suggested by Colin Ward: that organization should be voluntary, functional, temporary and small. His article on 'The Organization of Anarchy' successfully shows that giving full scope to different talents and individual initiative may work much better than a standardized and hierarchical structure; and he illustrates how'spontaneous order' can emerge out of apparent chaos. Ward also refutes the belief (voiced by Engels) that 'authority' is necessary to run a ship or a factory, by reference to the gang system among workers in Coventry, and composite working of the Durham coal fields, which both demonstrate that self-regulating groups of workers can promote high productivity without conventional supervision (Krimerman and Perry, Patterns of Anarchy, 393-5). But the article does not show how confederation can be based on his four principles. Indeed, confederation has usually been regarded as a compromise solution by anarchists. Proudhon sought to limit the scope and permanence of individual authority, and to maintain the principle of confederation by retaining more power at the local and intermediary levels than is delegated to the centre. As a compromise with constitutionalist or socialist approaches to politics, the idea of confederation has immediate relevance to political theory.

Whether anarchism will produce more than suggestive ideas for a theory of politics, or whether a specifically anarchist movement will ever achieve success, are both open to considerable doubt. On the other hand, anarchist ideas may be important in the reinterpretation [110] of liberalism and socialism, and may be partially realized in the aims or activities of popular movements. Since anarchism is in essence the least sectarian of doctrines, effective diffusion of anarchist influence might constitute its ultimately most valuable contribution to politics.