Albert Meltzer’s Anarchism: Arguments for and against-The Historical Background to Anarchism

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.

Workerists like Meltzer will often claim that “libertarians are not anarchists! They’re classical liberals.” However, classical liberals had no consistent program of any kind and to pretend otherwise is pure revisionism. Some classical liberals supported markets, and others supported social programs and public expenditures. Some supported both. Some favored small governments,others were fine with larger governments as long as they were not overly invasive and coercive. Some supported unions, others were unionbusters. Some supported slavery and a few were abolitionists. Some were moralistic, and others were nihilistic. Some were market socialists or anarchists, others were market absolutists and kleptocrats. Some were voluntaristic, others were militant. Some supported the Gold Standard, others sought its abolition (and the latter eventually won). In other words, I would say libertarians and individualist-anarchists of the kind Meltzer criticized are a type of anarchists that also happen to be liberals or liberals that also happen to be anarchists.
The same is true of philosophical differences among anarchists. For example, both “An-caps” and “An-coms” are all across the spectrum on the free will question. Many are materialists so yes they don`t believe in free will as they regard it as a religiously-based abstraction. Others will say that free will most likely does not literally exist but out of social courtesy, we should behave as though it does. Then, of course, as with any strong political or philosophical perspective, most are somewhere in between free will or strict determinism, myself included.
Anarchism dates back to well before the 19th Century. That was just when the industrialized Western academia started to recognize it as a legitimate political position rather than simply a synonym for chaos and lawlessness which sadly the majority are still indoctrinated into thinking it is to this very day.
Indigenous cultures, pre-Christian Greece and Alexandria, parts of China, Ancient Vietnam, Japan, and Korea prior to colonization, Mesoamerica, Iberia, India, Australia, Polynesia, Melanesia, Papua New Guinea, Canada, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Africa all had anarchist traditions since before the world even had written language.
I am sometimes asked how I, as an anarchist, can be interested in figures like Schmitt, Machiavelli, Hobbes, or elite theorists like Pareto, Mosca, and Michels. But the great thing about these figures is that they stripped the state of all of its metaphysical gloss carried over from antiquity and the middle ages. Schmitt, for instance, exposed the nature of the state as an exercise of raw power hidden behind the superficial gloss of whatever self-legitimating ideological superstructure happens to be in place at a particular time. Ideological superstructures are merely social constructs like different food customs, and on a practical level the concept of “political legitimacy” has no substantive meaning other than mere “acclamation” (popular sympathy or acquiescence, what Etienne de al Boetie called “voluntary servitude). He was inadvertently one of the best anarchists ever, even if that was not his intention.
As a commenter said in another thread, “the key seems to be decentralization and enduring there are actively rival factions within ruling elites. Such conditions prevent full centralization of power.”
The key is to be able to place as many constraints as possible on the power of elites to act. A lot of anarchists point to historic models like Iceland, Ireland, Catalonia, etc. as an illustration of their viewpoint. But while I think all that is interesting, I am more interested in civilizations that managed to exist on a significant scale over long periods of time and actually create things while controlling power.
Greece is one example with its vast agglomeration of city-states and no overarching government. The Holy Roman Empire is another, with its federation of hundreds of principalities and essentially powerless emperors. Even the Ottomans with their millet system had to make accommodations to rival centers of power. In traditional China, the village system functioned with a high level of autonomy, with considerable variation in customs, religions, etc on a village-by-village basis. Medieval leagues like the Hanseatics and Lombards are another example. Then you have the tribal federations in traditional African, Native American, and Polynesian cultures. Japan during the shogunate era maintained what amounted to a triumvirate of governments, with three or more rival governments functioning in the same territory, basically a polycentric system. Then you have all of the examples of scattered micronations like Lichtenstein and Andorra today.
It seems that the Westphalian model of the state is starting to decline, at least in the West, perhaps not as much in the East. I suspect the way of the future will be cultural/ideological migration, sanctuaries, separatist breakaway movements, startup societies, decentralized governments, private communities, free cities, private and/personal law, eco-villages, micronations, seasteads (if these prove to be technological feasible), polycentric or panarchical network states, and maybe a return to utopian colonies, intentional communities, or communes if modern welfare states eventually collapse and are unable to deliver the goods (which they barely do away).

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’.


Categories: Anarchism/Anti-State

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