The Historical Failure of Anarchism

A critique of anarchism from a one-time anarchist who (I’m told) became a Maoist.


1996 Position paper written by Chris Day that was a part of the final conflict in Love & Rage over orientation and direction. In this piece, he emphasizes what he see as the programmatic weaknesses of anarchism and the need to look beyond it for answers.

In the Spring 1996 issue of Workers Solidarity (journal of Ireland’s Workers Solidarity Movement) there is a review by Conor McLoughlin of Ken Loach’s excellent film on the Spanish Revolution, Land and Freedom. The review concludes that:

“(T)he factors involved in the defeat of the revolution would take an article in themselves to explain, ranging from the military power of the fascists (and their outside aid) to the betrayals by the communists and social democrats, and this is not my purpose here. What is important is that the social revolution did not collapse due to any internal problems or flaws in human nature. It was defeated from without. Anarchism had not failed. Anarchists had proved that ideas which look good in the pages of theory books look even better on the canvas of life.”

This quote neatly sums up the lessons that most anarchists seem to have drawn from the history of the anarchist movement. It also neatly sums up what is wrong with the anarchist movement. It is nothing short of a complete abdication of one of the most basic responsibilities of revolutionaries: the responsibility to subject the defeats and failures of the movement to the most thoroughgoing critical scrutiny. Instead it takes a historical experience that ended in a crushing defeat, makes excuses for that defeat and offers the faithful reassuring platitudes that, all evidence to the contrary, the one true path of anarchism is vindicated by the experience.

When anarchists encounter this sort of thing in other ideologies they never fail to tear it to shreds. Does Communism bear responsibility for the heaping piles of corpses produced by Communist regimes? Is Christianity to be blamed for the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Witch Hunts? Of course. We judge ideologies by their practical results in peoples lives not by their pie-in-the-sky promises. Anarchism in Spain raised the hopes of millions that a classless stateless society could be achieved in the hear and now, lead them to the barricades to make it real, and failed abysmally. The Spanish people were condemned to fourty years of fascist rule because of the failure. And yet while the anarchist movement of the past half century has produced an extensive literature extolling the momentary successes of the Spanish Revolution in the creation of peasant and workers collectives, there has been almost no serious effort to analyze how the anarchist movement contributed to its own defeat. Blaming ones political enemies (fascists, Communists, or social-democrats) for behaving exactly as one would expect them to behave only further confuses matters. Betrayal, after all, is only possible on the part of someone trusted.


1 reply »

  1. I’m only skimming this because it’s a huge article, but I think many of his points about military forces are valid – a professional army will rock the socks off part-timers in open battle – but I think the obvious option is ‘mercenaries’. Mercenaries have, since the ancient world, been a highly prized commodity. Modern nation states and international treaties have tried (and failed) to eliminate them, because a military force with heavy equipment and no loyalty to the existing state-system is supremely dangerous.
    The other alternative is to have a caste system – a fighting elite, akin to boyars or knights – but that’s going to be even less appealing to most anarchists than mercs.

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