The Anarchist Struggle and the Case for Optimism

These comments are based on a recent debate I was having in a social media forum concerning the future of anarchist movements. What follows is a collection of comments I made within the context of a wider discussion. I apologize for the disjointed nature of this post in advance, but I’m posting it because I think some of these comments address some of the most crucial questions were are currently facing.


Whenever I look at the rampant sectarianism that exists in the anarchist milieu at present my first inclination is to say things like:

I’m sure the overlords of the state look at this stuff from NSA reports and think, “Oh, shit, we’re fucked if these anarchist folks are so pissed at us.”


If I were the chairman of the board of Goldman-Sachs, this is the kind of “dissident political movement” I’d gladly bankroll out of self-interest. With enemies like this, who need friends?


When I read this shit, I’m astounded to consider that there was once an anarchist movement that assassinated the head of state of most major countries over a five year period. What the hell happened?

But then I remember that a little bit of context is necessary. For thing, I’m hardly immune to sectarian in-fighting myself. My battles with the left-libertarians, for example, are legion. Google my name and “left-libertarian” and you will see what I mean. Check out what some of the left-anarcho-communists have to say about me.

“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

It is actually quite astounding that there are now enough anarchists to have social media groups with 20,000 members, that these groups have flame wars that extend for 1,000 posts, and where left vs right, reform vs revolution, structural analysis vs conspiracy theory, and an-com vs an-cap are debated. It sure wasn’t like that when “anarchism” in North America was a few fifth rate print fanzines of primitivists, recycled Trotskyites, and pro-pedophiles.

Consider some lessons from the past.

The “propaganda by the deed” period in anarchist history reflected a genuine armed struggle that was going on at the time. Classical anarchist “terrorism” was the prototype for the armed insurgency movements that later emerged from anti-colonial struggles during the postwar/late 20th century period. It was the prototype for Islamic “terrorism” today. Johann Hari had a very interesting piece about that in the British press some years ago. In the late 19th and early 20th century anarchists were the leading revolutionary force in the world. There were insurgencies growing in the industrialized countries of the West, the remnant feudal countries, and the colonies of the European empires as well. It was a worldwide revolutionary struggle against imperialism. And it took the combined forces of capitalism, communism, and fascism. along with two world wars to defeat it.

Then when the rebellions of the 1960s came anarchist movements started to develop once again. It took about 100 years for classical anarchism to evolve from the time Proudhon first published his works to the defeat of the Spanish anarchists, their repression on the continent by fascism, and their eclipsing by communism elsewhere. Contemporary anarchism has only been around for about 45 years in any form at all, and it’s growth has naturally been slower because the affluent societies of the contemporary West generally do not breed the desperate people who flock to extremist movements as easily. But that’s starting to change with the widening of class divisions, failed war, and escalated state repression that has happened in the last couple decades.

In the Reagan era, the leading anarchist journal in North America was a postmodern-primitivist-situationist-pro-pedo zine (you read that right) out of St Louis. In the 90s anarchism began to grow thanks to the anti-globalization movement (itself a reaction against neoliberal economics and its effects). It has experienced even more growth more recently due to the economic crisis of ’07-’08, the recent wars, increased state repression, and the development of mains treampopular opposition movements. Where did today’s new and younger anarchists comes from? Mostly from the Ron Paul movement, the Tea Party, and Occupy.

When any movement experiences growth, ideological infighting is entirely normal, and so is criticism of ideological infighting. This is a very good paper on how genuinely competitive insurgent movements actually develop:

Infighting is part of the evolutionary process in the early stages of a movement. As movements grow they tend to coalesce around core ideas that everyone agrees on, or which the dominant factions find to be most important.There is not a single debate in the anarchist milieu today that there is not some prototype for in the classical anarchist movement. The same goes for the rivalries between groups and personalities. Check out the Most/Tucker polemics, or Emma Goldman’s attacking Most with a horsewhip. Check out the platformist/synthesist polemics. The English Marxist William Morris once said that anarchists themselves were proof that anarchism could never work in practice. Yet two million anarchists maintained to fight a two-front civil war with defeat largely being the result of impossible odds.

A lot of anarchist folks don’t realize just how much things are lining up in our favor:…/is-nation-state…

A Stinerite anarchist recently said to me, “I pretty much want to (kill) 99% of anarchists.” Ha! yes. People always end up hating those closest to themselves.

What are the future prospects for the anarchist struggle? How will things unfold for our movements over the next 50-100 years?

I am always amazed at how easily some anarchists seem to give up. It seems to me to be a matter of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That’s why in my more serious work I take a very “big picture” historical-theoretical perspective. Look at the dramatic changes that have happened the world over in just a few centuries. Look at those that have occurred in the last half century. Of course, most anarchists are losers, fools, and mediocrities. That’s because most people are losers, fools, and mediocrities. All human groups have their ubermenschen class and their much larger untermenschen class. Of course, anarchist groups waste time arguing over trivia that serves no immediately practical purpose. That’s what political and religious movements of any kind do. Of course, it is likely that when anarchist movements finally achieve political preeminence the end-game will be considerably watered down from the ideal as was the case with socialism.Of course, no ideal is ever as idyllic in practice as it is in theory. But they still mean something.

Look at the radical movements of the 18th and 19th century, which were only a short time ago when compared to all of human history. Is there not any area where they are not winning throughout most of the world today. Where, outside of the Persian Gulf, are the absolute monarchies? Where outside the Islamic world are the theocratic states? Where is the feudal aristocracy? Where other than in few particularly backward African countries is chattel slavery? Until the 19th century half of all children died before age ten. Most adults died in their 40s. People routinely died of diseases we have never heard of. As much as working at Wal-Mart might suck, it doesn’t compare with 19th century labor conditions or those in contemporary Bangladesh. In India a hundred years ago the average life expectancy was 22.

A generation ago you could do hard time in prison for being gay. You could be arrested for watching a “stag film” (the porn of the era). In the early 20th century many states still imposed the death penalty for petty theft. Whatever one thinks of the state of race relations today, not long ago in some regions of the United States you could murder a black person more or less with impunity. Nowadays even poor people have cell phones, TVs, CD players, computers, etc. Most of that stuff (except TVs) didn’t even exist when I was a kid.

The emergence of politically competitive anarchist movements by mid to late century is no more of an unreasonable goal than having a black president would have been in 1925 or gay rights would have been in 1955 or legalizing weed would have been in 1965. People from the generation before mine never dreamed the draft would one day be ended. They just took it as a fact of life, like we do with taxes.

Another libertarian recently raised this concern:

The trouble is, once power is achieved, humans intrinsically go into reactionary mode. Mayor of Houston is now gay. First big risky political move? Sure as hell wasn’t to push for more freedoms for others. It was to use the power of the city attorney’s office to attack the religious right. “Phew, we’re free and now getting some real political muscle. Should we use what we’ve learned to help others? Fuck no! Let’s go hose those pricks who were hosing us for so long!” Not saying that revenge fucking jack booted fascists is a horrible thing, but it is the ultimate devolution that occurs when any freedom movement achieves its goals. Almost every goddamned time.

Yes! That’s to be expected. A standard principle of conflict theory is that former outgroups usually become as abusive as the former ingroups they replace once they become powerful. The example mentioned above is an example of what I call “totalitarian humanism”,i.e. authoritarian statist progressivism that in part represents former outgroups gaining access to the state and using the state to bludgeon their former antagonists. It gets worse. For example, during the Spanish Civil War the anarchist militias shot priests, burned churches, shot alleged reactionaries without trial, etc. Bryan Caplan’s discussion of the anarchists in Spain get into that in some detail.

Whenever I point out examples like these to left-anarchists and left-libertarians, they’re usually oblivious or hostile, mostly because they think gay liberation, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc are such noble ideals and homophobes, racists, sexists, etc. are such awful people that it doesn’t matter. But it’s obviously self-defeating in the long run.

Anarchists will always face statist temptations. A few days, I saw a left-anarchist expressing sympathy for some Massachusetts town’s proposed ban on tobacco.

Also, it’s important to remember most progressives and leftists are not libertarians of any kind and don’t claim to be. Most of them believe in a state that enforces their moral views just like religious conservatives do. They’re basically theocrats without a god, and worship an abstract “humanity” instead. “I am a citizen of the world,” “The world is my church” and all the other cliched leftist slogans that go back to the Enlightenment.

Still, what matters most is the big picture. Yes, the Jacobins sucked. But it’s still a good thing that the Church, aristocracy, and monarchy were overthrown. It opened the opened for a more liberal republic down the road. Even Marxism-Leninism eradicated much of the remnants of feudalism and threw off colonialism in a way that opened the door for further social, political, and economic development down the road.

 However, I regard liberal capitalism and socialism as transitional phases leading towards anarchism, just like the divinity of the emperor led to divine right of kings and then to consent of the governed. Not in any absolute or perfectly linear sense, no. But again, I’m very big-picture oriented. Remember that during the era of the classical Greek civilization, arguably the apex of the ancient world, most people were slaves.

Capitalism greatly enhanced the standards of living of the working to middle classes over the long haul. Middle class Americans in the 1950s were often living better than European aristocrats in the 18th and 19th century. It also coincided with the technological revolution that greatly enhanced health, education, and life expectancy. The decline of theocracy brought with it the scientific revolution, church/state separation, freedom of opinion, etc. Nationalism brought with it liberal republicanism and the end of dynastic empires. Unless you prefer a society like Saudi Arabia, liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, social democracy, etc start looking pretty good taken in historical context, whatever their flaws.

It’s interesting to look at the predictions made by 19th century radicals and to compare them with the kinds of societies we have today. Marx was right that socialism would eventually come to supersede classical capitalism. But socialism when it actually came wasn’t the rivers of lemonade of Fourier and early utopian writers or the workers state of Marx. Instead,it was the replacement of the old bourgeois order of “family capitalism” (Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Mellon) with the new managerial class that was emerging through institutions everywhere, and in different countries regardless of their state ideology (capitalism, communism, fascism). In other words, Marx was right but so was Bakunin. Socialism (of a kind) superseded classical capitalism, but it turned out to be the reign of the bureaucratic administrative class Bakunin predicted it would be.

Another anarchist recently said to me, “Meh, but the anarchist movement seems to be, generally, turning a direction that I do not like. I really could give a shit less about organic vegan co-ops run by Polyamoorus Trans Furry Otherkins” LOL. It’s been moving in a direction I don’t like as long as I’ve been around it. I’m widely reviled in some anarchist circles for making less than reverential comments about those particular strands of anarchism. But what I have noticed is that as anarchist and libertarian movements have grown they’ve splintered off into all kinds of directions. For instance, I belong to both an-cap oriented and an-soc oriented FB groups that have memberships in the five figures. Nowadays, we’ve got “anarcho-tranny-vegans” to “anarcho-neo-nazis” and everything in between. We’ve also got reformist, “mainstream” libertarianism, which itself has left and right and reform and radical wings. We’ve also got this militant anti-government cultural undercurrent that’s growing like the militia movement, sovereign citizens, Alex Jones patriotards, “neo-secessionists, etc.” A lot of mainstream dissident currents are also transitional phases for those who end up in more extreme tendencies. I don’t think there’s ever going to be some magic moment where the state apocalyptically withers away. Instead, genuine progress is made through the creation of ever greater zones of autonomy that shield the individual from institutional authority and arbitrary power, and the evolution of cultural norms that serves as constraints on institutionalized power.

For instance, as retarded as the constant libertarian/an-cap sermons about the NAP can be, the introduction of the NAP idea in mainstream political discourse, not to mention law and government, would actually be a monumental achievement. If lawmakers are forced by cultural power and ideological currents to at least give lip service to the NAP, and give some consideration as to whether a proposed law is against the NAP, then that’s genuine progress. The same with “natural rights,” which I think is a quasi-religious, metaphysical doctrine that’s absolutely ridiculous from a rationalist standpoint. BUT it’s a very helpful piece of cultural and political mythology, i.e. a Sorelian myth, a Stinerite spook, a Platonic noble lie that actually impacts people’s thinking and actions, and in ways we would often want them to go. On a more practical level, the introduction of jury nullification into mainstream jurisprudence was also be a very important achievement comparable to the Supreme Court’s creation of the exclusionary rule in the 60s.

If anarchist and libertarian movements became large enough to be political contenders, you would still see all the same stuff we see today. It would probably be worse, because the larger movements gets the more they have to dumb themselves down to accommodate the mediocrities and untermenschen that comprise most of humanity. But the emergence of a left-anarchist movement as an opposition force from the Left and a right-libertarian movement as an opposition force from the Right, combined with all kinds of fellow travelers, hangers on, cults, opportunists, and neither fish nor fowl trends would actually be an important political advancement, particularly in an atmosphere where the wider state system is breaking down. Imagine a society of city-states, Swiss cantons, HRE model federations, with an-syn unions striking against an-cap industries, and courts and legislators debating the proper application of the NAP and natural rights, and authoritarians and puritans at least having to try to justify themselves on libertarian grounds (“A smoking ban is really anarchistic because it liberates the individual from the servitude of addiction and oppression by tobacco farmers and cigarette manufacturers”). and mainstream cultural conflict being represented by social-anarchists who are anarchists because they oppose social hierarchies that perpetuate homophobia, and an-caps who are anarchists because they oppose statist legislation barring discrimination against homosexuals. A political and cultural scenario of this type would actually be a fairly monumental advancement for liberty and civilization. Today, there are virtually no recognized constraints on political power other than “democracy” (voting for worthless candidates fronting for the ruling class every few years) and the few remaining strands of the Bill of Rights and related jurisprudence (like the First and Sixth Amendments).

As awful as the anarcho-vegan-tranny-feminazi-white guilt retards are, almost none of them were in favor of the war in Iraq, and probably not Afghanistan either. None of them are for the war on drugs, prison-industrial complex, police state, etc. None are for the Patriotic Act. Some are in prison as enemies of the state. As pathetic as the vulgar libertarians can often be, most of them oppose many of the worst excesses of the state as well. As retarded as the sovereign citizens are, at least they have the right attitude. As unbelievably superficial as Alex Jones’ National Enquirer ideology is, at least his followers are sincerely against the system. As outlandish as some of these “anarchists of the far right” people can be, at least they’ve got a very profound sense of urgency and a thoroughgoing contempt for the system.

As I said, there will always be deviations on both the Left and Right.

Interestingly, Spanish anarchism had puritan strand to it as well. There were anti-smoking, anti-alcohol, anti-prostitution sentiments among them that were very strong. Some were also very anti-homosexual, which I’m sure most contemporary anarchists are not aware of. That kind of stuff just seems to represent a part of human nature that transcends ideological barriers.

In the 80s, there was feminazi “anarchist” group in Canada called “Open Road” that used to bomb adult bookstores in British Columbia. Ironically, the Aryan Nations terrorist offshoot “The Order” was doing the same thing in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, how many left-anarchists, even the most dregs of the earth kind, would you have found at a pro-Iraq War rally?

Here’s an old blog post of mine that deals in part with the question of neo-puritan tendencies found among anarchists, particularly those of the left. I included this in the book as well.…/why-i-am-an-anarcho…/

Most contemporary people have no idea what the “old world” was really like.…/how_the_sexual_revolution…

Another anarchist recently said, “One of my fears is precisely that anarchist societies would be more insidious in their own tyranny because they would refuse to recognize it as such. If our discourse became more anarchistic, that would be good in a sense, but it would also scale up the Orwellian doublespeak.” I understand the logic behind that. The same critique has been made of mainstream liberal democracy (“the government can’t oppress us because we voted for them”) and I think it carries a strong amount of weight. But the emergence of liberal democracy was still an improvement over absolute monarchies, hereditary aristocracies, theocracy, fascism, communism, and military dictatorships. I’d rather live in any contemporary democracy that in pre-1989 eastern Europe, Saudi Arabia, the Third Reich, the Ottoman empire, pre-revolutionary France, or Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain.

Also, as anarchist and libertarian movements grow and become more mainstream that will have a moderating effect around the edges. I think the freakazoid versions of anarchism-the primitivists, transhumanists, anarcho-nazis, anarcho-trannys-are funny and entertaining. But that’s not what the mainstream of a competitive anarchist movement would be. It would be more like a radical centrist position that was about self-determination for all peoples, political and civil liberty, and socio-economic justice for the poor and working classes.

Look at the social change that has happened in the last half century. Since civil rights, the majority of blacks have been rather successfully integrated into the mainstream. 3/4 of U.S. blacks now have middle class incomes, we’ve got the first black president and all that. Yes, there are still problems. The conditions of the lowest socioeconomic levels of blacks have since deteriorated considerably. There are probably several dozen factors that have contributed to that. But I’d say the primary catalyst has probably been the War on Drugs. The same is true of women. The idea of a woman president in the 50s would have been a joke. Now it’s distinct possibility. And you find women in most professions that were once dominated by almost entirely by men. But we’ve also seen an explosion in the number of female prisoners (again, thanks mostly to the drug war) and the conditions for poor women are getting particularly bad as well.

I do agree the nanny state has grown significantly. I’ve seen that in my own lifetime. When I was younger, smoking was no big deal. People did it everywhere. I used to buy beer in convenience stores when I was sixteen and no one said anything about it. You didn’t see all this schoolmarmish obsession with smoking, food, etc. But you did have groups like the PMRC which you wouldn’t find today. Instead, the PCers have replaced the religious right, but I think that only indicates how far leftward things have shifted culturally.

The main thing that’s left out of most analysis of these questions is recognition that even though the U.S. has shifted dramatically to the left on cultural questions in recent decades, it’s gone back to the early 20th century on economic questions. That explains why we have so much cultural liberalization and downward mobility at the same time.…/why-there-is-no-left…/

3 replies »

  1. You seem to be a progressive, in that you have a progressive, linear view of history. That is a very common view in our society. I have moved past it and am now embracing post-modern nihilism. I think your pan-anarchist perspective would be stronger if you were more nihilistic.

  2. “You seem to be a progressive, in that you have a progressive, linear view of history.”

    I could see how you could get that from the post, but I’m actually critical of the linear-progressive historical model, and hold to a view not unlike “post-modern nihilism.”

    I would agree that there is a such thing as “progress” (relative to the human condition) in the sense that we now have salaried employees rather than serfs and slaves, and we travel in cars and airplanes rather than in chariots or on horseback. But I don’t see any teleological process in history. For instance, civilizations rise and fall. They don’t perpetually advance to some higher level, and civilization can be destroyed in what seems like almost an instant (see the two world wars). Diseases can be cured, but new diseases can easily come along and replace them. Crime, political oppression, human conflict-it’s still with us as much as it ever was.

  3. I would add to the above comments that I don’t think it’s necessary to have some elaborate theory of history or far reaching framework in order to engage in pan-anarchist activism. In fact, it is probably a hindrance.

    In my book I outline a kind of “lite Nietzschean” or perhaps a “lite Spenglerian” model of history that I think best fits how social evolution takes place (i.e., cyclical, random, and non-teleological). But I certainly don’t think that’s necessary for the pan-anarchist/anarcho-pluralist political outlook. You could be just as committed a pan-anarchist and hold to a Whig theory of history, Marxist historical materialism, or some kind of providential outlook. I know people whose anarchist sincerity I do not question who hold to all of these views.

    The same is true of philosophical frameworks. I’m in the Nietzsche-Stirner mode, but I know plenty of others whose anarchist/libertarian credentials are just as good as mine or better who are natural rights theorists, utilitarians, contractarians, Kantians, Christians, Buddhists, virtue ethicists, moral realists, etc.

    In fact, the same could be said of the general Left/Right divide.

    For example, the Left/Right conflict isn’t really about economics.There have always been “socialist” and “free market” strands to both the Left and Right. The free market Left is Proudhon, Mill, Molinari, Tucker, and Bastiat. The socialist Left is Babeuf, Blanc, Marx, LaSalle, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. There are plenty of neither fish nor fowl categories like Paine, Fourier, Catholic Workers and Henry George. There’s a lengthy anti-capitalist tradition on the Right as well, including the counterrevolutionaries, revolutionary conservatives, social nationalists, distributists, falangists, religion based socialism, fascists, Nazis, etc.

    The key differences between left and right are not so much about economics as much as wider values involving hierarchy vs egalitarianism, tradition vs the idea of progress, universalism vs the particular, a fixed vs malleable view of human nature, and the linear vs cyclical views of history.

    But I don’t think any of this has to do with philosophical anarchism as a political theory per se. As Wikipedia says….

    “Anarchism is a political philosophy that advocates stateless societies often defined as self-governed voluntary institutions,but that several authors have defined as more specific institutions based on non-hierarchical free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, or harmful.While anti-statism is central, anarchism entails opposing authority or hierarchical organisation in the conduct of human relations, including, but not limited to, the state system.”

    The debates within anarchism concern the application and interpretation of these ideas. Pan-anarchism advocates a non-sectarian approach. For example, some anarchists are anti-Catholic on atheist, anti-clerical, or anti-hierarchical grounds. But I don’t see much point in that in societies with church/state separation and free speech. Some an-coms think any kind of commerce is unacceptable. I think that’s impractical from an economics perspective and smacks of pre-modern, aristocratic class prejudice against the merchant class. Some an-caps seem to think Lockean property theory is the only legitimate kind of property rights, which strikes me a culturally biased and historically specific.

    For the purpose of pan-anarchist activism it’s probably best to stick to a few basic ideas like, for instance,:

    1. The Tripartite Alliance (“left/right/center against the system’)
    2. Populism (“the people against the elite”)
    3. Decentralization (“city-states/power to the neighborhoods”)

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