Against Anarcho-Sectarianism: Why All Forms of Anti-Authoritarianism Should Be Embraced

Lately, I’ve been reading Michael Schmidt’s and Lucien van der Walt’s “Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter Power Vol. 1).” A summary of the book is available on Wikipedia, and a PDF version is available from LibCom. The book can be purchased from Amazon. Apparently, Schmidt is now on the outs with the left-wing anarchist milieu for, among other things, having once said good things about yours truly.

This book is an excellent history and discussion of anarcho-communism and anarcho-syndicalism from the heyday of the “class struggle” era of anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, a criticism of the book that I ironically share with its left-wing critics is its exclusionary definition of anarchism and doctrinaire Platformism. Alexander Reid-Ross and Joshua Stephens observe:

While its proletarian message rang true to many, Black Flame did not come without its controversy. The construction of anarchism one finds in its pages is keenly specific, and strikes a deliberate contrast with contemporaneous anarchist literature seeking to grapple with the gritty realities of anarchist practices increasingly deployed by on-the-ground struggles. Alongside the influence of prison-abolition movements, post-structural theory, and leftist solidarity for Indigenous uprisings like the Zapatistas in Mexico, a variety of shifts reaching back some two-decades had effectively put the anarchist tradition’s classical preoccupations with capitalism and the State on equal footing (and in conversation) with struggles around patriarchal and racial domination, Indigenous and gender self-determination, colonialism, and disability. In contradistinction, the construction of anarchism put forth by Black Flame reasserts a temptingly simple primacy of class struggle and workers’ movements with the not inconsiderable force of “big A Anarchism.”

The “big A Anarchism” referred to by Reid-Ross and Stephens reflects a dichotomy that was formulated by David Graeber, which differentiates between “big A Anarchism” (i.e. classical 19th and early 20th century anarchists oriented towards revolutionary unionism and “class struggle,” e.g. syndicalism, Platformism, “black and red” anarcho-communism, etc. which was explicitly revolutionary in nature) and “small a anarchism” (i.e. the post-1960s models of anarchism with an emphasis on “social movements,” e.g. anti-racism, feminism, gay liberation, animal liberation, environmentalism, etc. which tends to be reformist or merely “activist” in nature). Wayne Price has a good discussion of this dichotomy that is available at The Anarchist Library.(Caveat: Both Reid-Ross and Price are adamantly opposed to myself and ATS.)

I share the criticisms of “small a anarchists” who claim that Schmidt and van der Walt are too dismissive of post-1960s models of anarchism, of which there are quite a few, and which certainly merit inclusion in the anarchist canon. However, my own criticism of “Black Flame” is one that I find to be even more serious, and that is Schmidt’s and van der Walt’s efforts to exclude from the anarchist tradition virtually all forms of anti-authoritarian thought or struggle that occurred before the emergence of Mikhail Bakunin as a revolutionary anarchist leader.

Clearly, an approach to anarchist history that wishes to exclude these figures from the anarchist tradition is problematic, particularly in the case of Proudhon, the first modern thinker to ever refer to himself as an anarchist. Schmidt and van der Walt attack the narrative of anarchist history that was initially formulated by Paul Eltzbacher in 1900.

In other words, Schmidt and van der Walt wish to limit the definition of anarchism specifically to “class struggle” oriented anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-communism as these developed in the 19th century. On the question of whether Murray Rothbard and Karl Marx could be considered anarchists, I would certainly say “yes” in the case of Murray Rothbard, who formulated a school of anarchist thought that is essentially a hybrid of the individualist anarchism of 19th century American anarchists such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker (whom Rothbard acknowledged as an influence), and the anti-state radical classical liberalism of 19th century European liberals such as Gustav Molinari. Karl Marx is much more problematic. The anti-anarchism of Marxism is not rooted in the Marxist advocacy of some kind of “stateless, classless society” as a utopian endgame, but in Marxism’s orientation towards using overtly authoritarian means of achieving such objectives. While I agree with “libertarian socialist” and “libertarian communist” critics of Leninism who insist that a differentiation must be made between Marx’s actual thought, and the later idea of the “vanguard party” led by a cadre of professional revolutionaries developed by Lenin, it is also clear that Marx and Engels were clearly within the tradition of authoritarian revolutionary statism that emerged during the French Revolution by means of such tendencies as the Jacobins.

The core difference that emerges on this question involves the conflict between the perspective of Schmidt and van der Walt on one  hand, and a perspective like that of Peter Marshall, who defines anarchism not in terms of historical specificity or particular sectarian or ideological currents, but as the wider human struggle against authoritarianism. This dispute has become increasingly common in recent times. On one hand there are those like myself who favor an “anarchism without adjectives” approach, with varying degrees of breadth. On the other hand there are those who take positions similar to Schmidt and van der Walt. Of course, there are some anarchists who wish to formulate an even narrower definition of anarchism than the authors of “Black Flame.” For example, Eion O’Connor has sought to exclude even Bakunin from the anarchist narrative, and has made the following remarks, including a specific attack on yours truly:


There’s a number of different views on who’s deemed to be a real anarchist and what’s deemed to be legitimate schools of anarchist politics.

Let’s imagine a spectrum of these views, measured in terms of “strictness” of who’s in vs out.


we have the view that anyone who calls themself an anarchist is one, along with anybody from history who seems vaguely anarchistic. So everybody from voluntaryist capitalists to primitivists to pro-market transhumanist individualists to anarchist communists to national anarchists counts as “in”.


we have the view that the only legitimate school of anarchism is social anarchism. Meaning anarchist communism (and its descendants), as it existed from its formation within the St. Imier International in the 1870s. Also including the collectivists of Spain, the anarcho-syndicalists, and anarchist social ecologists.

This may seem extreme, after all, wouldn’t this exclude the first person to call themselves an anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and even Mikhail Bakunin?

Yes it would. And supporters of this view cite the fact that while both men used the words anarchist as an adjective, and anarchy as a noun, neither ever used the term anarchism (as an -ism) and probably would’ve been against doing so.

They are therefore seen as foundational to movement anarchism, but not part of it themselves. Much like how Rousseau was foundational to Romanticism, while being dead before it became a current in European thought.


To dismiss, at the beginning, the view that absolutely anyone who calls themself an anarchist is an anarchist, I think pretty much the only person who takes this view seriously is Keith Preston and his “pan-secessionism” clique. He proposes that we have privatised cities next to fascist racial separatist nations next to anarcho-communist confederations. Not something that’s going to happen.

But even if you exclude the fascists and the capitalists from anarchism, is there not still tension between those who favour a stateless “free market” (even a socialist one) and those who favour a stateless confederation of free communes?

This is why I’ve become more sympathetic to the “consistency” view on the other side of the spectrum. It may seem strict, but I think we need that in order to ground ourselves intellectually and make our theory coherent.

That’s not to say we can’t still describe things outside social anarchism as “anarchistic”, or as part of the wider “family of anarchy”, but we should only use the term anarchism to identify tendencies who cohere with a common sense of ideas and practices.

What do you think?

Where do you place yourself on the spectrum and why?

I have also encountered anarchists who wished to exclude Kropotkin from the anarchist pantheon, by insisting that Proudhon’s mutualism, Tucker’s individualism, Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism, Samuel Konkin’s agorism, Henry George’s geoism, Goldman’s feminist anarcho-communism, Stirner’s egoism, Zerzan’s primitivism, Tolstoy’s pacifism, or Puydt’s panarchism or some other preferred form of anarchism is the only “true” form. Indeed, there are a range of opinions of these kinds that could be collectively categorized under the label of “anarcho-sectarianism.”

It seems extraordinarily silly to insist that the struggle against the state, authority, oppression, economic exploitation, etc. only begins with the advent of a formalized anarchist ideological system in the post-Enlightenment era. This ignores the countless struggles against such things that have existed since time immemorial. It ignores the vast range of ideas critiquing systems of authority that have developed since ancient times. Such a perspective also ignores the many anarchist or quasi-anarchistic practices that have existed in many different kinds of communities or cultures in the past. However, one necessary corrective that Schmidt and van der Walt do make is their pointing out how large and influential the classical anarchist movement of the “class struggle” period actually was.

While the perspective of Schmidt and van der Walt is appreciated, it would seem to be unnecessarily self-limiting. Essentially, the perspective that is offered by Schmidt and van der Walt could be described as “socialism minus the state” (just as some in the “thick” left-libertarian milieu have advocated for what amounts to a “cultural leftism minus the state”). Surely, 21st century anarchists and anti-authoritarians should not only recognize the legacy of the historic anarchist movement of the class struggle era, but build on that legacy. However, it is not necessary to define anarchism within this still narrowly-focused, time-constrained framework. It is likewise appropriate to indeed recognize the contributions of anti-authoritarian thinkers that preceded class struggle anarchism, whether from the ancient world, the medieval world, the world’s great philosophical and religious traditions, or many indigenous, traditional, or pre-modern cultures. It is also appropriate to recognize new contributions to anarchist and anti-authoritarian thought and practice than have emerged since the period of class struggle anarchism. If anything, anarchists should embrace more rather than less anti-authoritarian ideas from wherever they emerge. Anti-authoritarian ideas can appear at many points on the political spectrum, yet far too many anarchists have adopted an overly reflexive leftism. While the anticlericalism of classical anarchism may have had its justifications, the contributions of religious or spiritual thought to anti-authoritarian values are also significant as well. Cultural frameworks of both a “progressive” and “traditional” nature have their anti-authoritarian dimensions. Many anarchists, for example, have critiqued right-wing authoritarianism to the point of exaggeration and even pathology, while ignoring creeping authoritarianism, flagrantly obvious authoritarianism, or historically well-established forms of authoritarianism coming from the Left.

Many schools of anarchist thought are excessively one-dimensional, and tend to attribute all the world’s problems to a single determinant, e.g. the state, capitalism, patriarchy, industrial technology, hierarchy, large scale institutions, violence, civilization, racism, religion, or some other singular target. A far better approach is the holistic one, which recognizes the contributions of many different rivers leading into a vast ocean of anti-authoritarian thought and practice in the face of the many problematic aspects of the human condition and the natural world.