I generally like Albert Meltzer but he was a little too “workerist” for my tastes, or what would today be called “class reductionism.” Meltzer represents a viewpoint that I respect and yet disagree with at the same time. His view was that “workerist anarchism” of the late 19th/early 20th century is the essence of anarchism and that all these other things are just sideshows or preludes to the main event. I take the polar opposite view that industrial revolution-era “workerism” and its descendants are only a tendency within a much, much broader collection of traditions, ideas, and movements, the same way the JWs, CS, SDAs, and Mormons emerged in the 19th century as spinoffs from Protestant American Christianity, but not the entirety of Protestantism, Christianity, or Abrahamism itself. Contra Meltzer, I actually think Eltzbacher’s work on classical anarchism is a masterpiece, and that Godwin, Proudhon, Stirner, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and movements inspired or influenced by these figures were extremely important.
Anarchism: Arguments for and against
By Albert Meltzer
The Historical Background to Anarchism
It is not without interest that what might be called the anarchist approach goes back into antiquity; nor that there is an anarchism of sorts in the peasant movements that struggled against State oppression over the centuries. But the modern anarchist movement could not claim such precursors of revolt as its own more than the other modern working class theories. To trace the modern Anarchist movement we must look closer to our own times. While there existed libertarian and non-Statist and federalist groups, which were later termed anarchistic in retrospect, before the middle of the nineteenth century, it was only about then that they became what we now call Anarchists.
In particular, we may cite three philosophical precursors of Anarchism, Godwin, Proudhon, and perhaps Hegel. None of these was in fact an Anarchist, though Proudhon first used the word in its modern sense (taking it from the French Revolution, when it was first used politically and not entirely pejoratively). None of them engaged in Anarchist activity or struggle, and Proudhon engaged in parliamentary activity. One of the poorest, though ostensibly objective, books on Anarchism, Judge Eltzbacher’s Anarchism, describes Anarchism as a sort of hydra-headed theory some of which comes from Godwin or Proudhon or Stirner (another who never mentions anarchism), or Kropotkin, each a different variation on a theme. The book may be tossed aside as valueless except in its description of what these particular men thought. Proudhon did not write a programme for all time, nor did Kropotkin in his time write for a sect of Anarchists. But many other books written by academics are equally valueless: many professors have a view of anarchism based on the popular press. Anarchism is neither a mindless theory of destruction nor, despite some liberal-minded literary conceptions, is it hero-worship of people or institutions, however liberated they might be.
Godwin is the father of the Stateless Society movement, which diverged into three lines. One, that of the Anarchists (with which we will deal). Two, that of classic American Individualism, which included Thoreau and his school, sometimes thought of as anarchistic, but which equally gives rise to the ‘rugged individualism’ of modern ‘libertarian’ capitalism and to the pacifist cults of Tolstoy and Gandhi which have influenced the entire hippy cult. Individualism (applying to the capitalist and not the worker) has become a right-wing doctrine.
The second line of descent from Godwin is responsible for the ‘Pacifist Anarchist’ approach or the ‘Individualist Anarchist’ approach that differs radically from revolutionary anarchism in the first line of descent. It is sometimes too readily conceded that ‘this is, after all, anarchism’. Pacifist movements, and the Gandhian in particular, are usually totalitarian and impose authority (even if only by moral means); the school of Benjamin Tucker — by virtue of their individualism — accepted the need for police to break strikes so as to guarantee the employer’s ‘freedom’. All this school of so-called Individualists accept, at one time or another, the necessity of the police force, hence for Government, and the definition of anarchism is no Government.
The third school of descent from Godwin is simple liberalism, or conservative individualism.
Dealing here with the ‘first line of descent’ from Godwin, his idea of Stateless Society was introduced into the working class movement by Ambrose Cuddon (jun). His revolutionary internationalist and non-Statist socialism came along the late days of English Chartism. It was in sympathy with the French Proudhonians. Those who in Paris accepted Proudhon’s theory did not consider themselves Anarchists, but Republicans. They were for the most part self-employed artisans running their own productive businesses. The whole of French economy was geared both to the peasantry and to the artisan — this, the one-person business of printer, bookbinder, wagon and cart maker, blacksmith, dressmaker, goldsmith, diamond polisher, hat maker as distinct from the factory or farm worker of the time, who worked for an employer. Independent, individualistic and receiving no benefit from the State but the dubious privilege of paying taxes and fighting, they were at that time concerned to find out an economic method of survival and to withstand encroaching capitalism.
Marx described them as ‘petty bourgeois’, which had a different meaning in the nineteenth century. He justifiably claimed that these ‘petty bourgeois’ were not as disciplined as the then factory workers (he despised farm workers) and said that when they were forced into industry they did not faithfully follow the line laid down by a disciplined party from outside the class, but were independent of mind and troublesome to organisation imposed from above, their frustration often leading to violence. They moved to anarchism and through syndicalism spread it through the working class. (This claim is echoed by Marxists nowadays, when the term ‘petty bourgeois’ means something utterly different — solicitors and chartered accountants — and thus makes Marx’s quite sensible analysis sound utterly ridiculous.)
These French and English movements came together in the First International. The International Workingmen’s Association owed its existence to Marx, indirectly to Hegelian philosophy. But within the International, there was not only the ‘scientific socialism’ of Marx, but also Utopian Socialism, Blanquism (working-class republicanism), English Trade Unionism, German-authoritarian and opportunistic socialism, and Spanish, Swiss, and Italian stateless socialism, as well as national Republicanism and the various federalistic trends.
Bakunin was not the ‘father’ of anarchism, as often described. He was not an anarchist until later in life. He learned his federalism and socialism from the Swiss workers of the Jura, and gave expression to the ideas of the Godwinian and Proudhonian ‘federalists’, or non-State socialists. In many countries, Spain and Italy in particular, it was Bakunin’s criticism of the ideas of Marx that gave the federalist movement its definition. (While to Anarchists, Marx is of course “the villain of the piece” in the International, it must be granted that without Marx defining one form of socialism there would have been no clash, no Bakunin defining the opposite.)
There had grown up by 1869 a very noticeable trend within the International that was called ‘Bakuninist’ which was in one line from Godwin and another from Proudhon. When the Paris Commune exploded in the face of the International, it was the parting of the ways (though this was deferred a little longer and seemed to follow personal lines). From the non-Anarchists and Marxists knew by their different analyses and interpretations and actions during the Paris Commune, that they were separate.
All the same, for many years Anarchists continued to form part of the Socialist Movement that included Marxists and Social-Democrats. Marx had not succeeded in building a mass movement. The German socialist movement was more influenced by Lassalle; English socialism by reformist and Christian traditions of radical nonconformity. Only after Marx’s death, when Marxism was the official doctrine of German social-democracy, were Anarchists finally excluded from Socialist Internationals; social-democracy marched on to its own schism, that between English Liberalism on the one hand, and social-democracy on the other; and that between ‘majority’ Social-Democrats (Bolsheviks, actually never more than a minority) and reformism.
There were no such schisms at that time in the anarchist movement as such. Popular opinion made such figures as Tolstoy into (what he never claimed to be) an anarchist (he was not; neither in the normal sense of the words was he a Christian or a Pacifist, as popularly supposed, but his idolators always know better than he), but derived from the ‘second line’ of Godwinism like many other caricature-Anarchists. What we may call ‘mainstream’ anarchism was coherent and united, and was given body by the writings of a number of theoreticians, such as Peter Kropotkin.
After the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, and repression in many parts of the world — notably Tsarist Russia, Anarchism passed into its well-known stage of individual terrorism. It fought back and survived and gave birth to (or was carried forward in) the revolutionary syndicalist movement which began in France. It lost ground after the First World War, because of the revival of patriotic feeling, the growth of reformist socialism, and the rise of fascism; and while it made a contribution to the Russian Revolution, it was defeated by the Bolshevik counterrevolution. It was seen in both resistance and in a constructive role in the Spanish Revolution of 1936.
By the time of the Second World War, Anarchism had been tried and tested in many revolutionary situations and labour struggles. Alternative forms had been tried and discarded; the German Revolution had introduced the idea of Workers Councils. The experience of the American IWW had shown the possibilities of industrial unionism and ‘how one can build the new society in the shell of the old’. In the ‘flint against flint’ argument against Marxist Communism, the lesson of what socialism without freedom meant in Russia, and the failure of reformist socialism everywhere, the anarchist doctrine was shaped.
There were never theoreticians of Anarchism as such, though it produced a number of theoreticians who discussed aspects of the philosophy. Anarchism has remained a creed that has been worked out in practice rather than from a philosophy. Very often, a bourgeois writer comes along and writes down what has already been worked out in practice by workers and peasants; he is attributed by bourgeois historians as being a leader, and by successive bourgeois writers (citing the bourgeois historians) as being one more case that proves the working class relies on bourgeois leadership.
More often, bourgeois academics borrow the name ‘Anarchism’ to give expression to their own liberal philosophies or, alternatively, picking up their cue from journalists, assorted objects of their dislike. For some professors and teachers, ‘Anarchism’ is anything from Tolstoyism to the IRA, from drug-taking to militant-trade unionism, from nationalism to bolshevism, from the hippy cult to Islamic fundamentalism, from the punk scene to violent resistance to almost anything! This is by no means an exaggeration but a sign of academic illiteracy, to be distinguished from journalists who in the 1960s obeyed a directive to call anything Marxist-Leninist that involved action as ‘Anarchist’ and anything Anarchist as ‘nationalist’.