Learning the Hard Way: My Life as an Anarcho-Leftoid

by Keith Preston

Having read Nexus’ masterful article on building bridges between market anarchists and anarcho-socialists, I feel ASC readers might find some of my experiences in this arena beneficial or at least interesting. As many readers are no doubt aware, I am an anarcho-socialist myself. I have expounded upon these views elsewhere, so I won’t go into them here, except to say that I generally favor an economic order of small businesses and self-employed persons, cooperatives, worker owned/managed industries, Proudhonian banks and other similar institutions operating within the context of a lassez faire, stateless, free market. Essentially, I am what the late, great anarchist writer Sam Dolgoff called an “anarcho-pluralist”, which for me means that many different kinds of economic institutions, whether capitalist or socialist or otherwise, can co-exist in an anarchist polis.

I was a part of the hard leftist “anarchist” milieu that Nexus describes for a few years. I became an anarchist at the age of twenty one, mostly as a result of reading about classical anarchism and its godfathers (Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin) in the encyclopedia and other generic sources. Prior to that I had been an activist for various left-wing causes for about year, mostly the anti-apartheid movement and opposition to the war in Central America (this was the mid 1980s). I became involved in the anarcho-leftoid scene after discovering an “anarchist” group of this type on the campus of my university. Right from the start, I recognized that this was a movement that left much to be desired. For one thing, I never shared the rather dogmatic views that most of these people have on race, gender, sexuality and ecology, which seemed to me to be hysterical and one-sided. Also, many of these groups were prone to bitter faction fights over the silliest and most trivial matters. Most of them struck me as intellectually mediocre, emotionally immature and some demonstrated outright mental disturbance. Nevertheless, I stuck it out for a few years hoping the movement could evolve into a serious social and political force.

At the time, I was basically an “anarcho-social democrat” of the Noam Chomsky variety. I generally accepted the Marxist critique of capitalism. The only alleged free-marketers I had ever heard of were those of the right-wing, law and order, militarist Republican variety. I took it for granted that a free market economy would produce nineteenth-century level poverty of the type described by Charles Dickens and Karl Marx. I felt that the welfare state was a necessary transitional stage toward the development of a stateless, worker managed economy of the anarcho-syndicalist variety. I continued to hold these views even after I abandoned the leftist-anarchist movement. I could probably write a book on my misadventures with the anarcho-leftoids. I was at the 1989 Chicago conference where “Love and Rage”, initially a tabloid that eventually became the basis for a federation, was launched. Those people were idiots. Mostly, they were a mixture of ex-Trots and molotov types. I remember one fellow, a middle aged man with gray hair, who wanted to call the paper “TRASH”, to be an acronym for “The Revolutionary Anarchist Streetfighters from Hell”. I was also an official in the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) at the time, a group that was going through a bitter internal struggle over control over their national office and, therefore, their finances. I was involved with a campus anarchist group whose members included a New Age guy who objected to the use of a podium by speakers during meetings because it reminded him of Hitler, a hippie chick who didn’t want to meet in university activities rooms because the fluorescent lights allegedly hurt her eyes and another guy who became indignant when I insisted that he refrain from passing a bong around and playing the boom box during the course of meetings. Needless to say, I was thrilled to leave this “movement” behind.

Eventually, my views began to evolve a bit. Impressed by their opposition to the drug war and military interventionism, I joined the Libertarian Party and, by accident, got on the Lassez-Faire Books mailing list. I found most of the books carried by this outfit could be found in my local university library. I discovered a wealth of knowledge from this material. After reading Mises and Hayek, I threw Marxism overboard. After reading Charles Murrays’s “Losing Ground”, I jettisoned my belief in the beneficence of the welfare state. From Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, I acquired the idea of voluntary, contractual communities. From Murray Rothbard, David Friedman and the Tannehills, I gleaned the notion of private, competing protection services and polycentric law. From Thomas Szasz, I learned of the incipient tyranny of the therapeutic state. From Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, I came to understand the destructiveness of the welfare state to minorities. Then as now, my approach was to take all of these ideas and superimpose them upon the classical anarchist beliefs that serve as the concrete foundation of my overall ideology. I retained my belief in worker-run industrial institutions, cooperatives, labor unions as a bulwark against state and corporate power, my criticisms of the state-corporate alliance and my Chomskyite critique of US imperialism and the media. Much more recently, Hans Hoppe helped confirm my suspicions of democracy.

I like to think of my political views as being analogous to an architectural work. Classical Proudhonian-Bakuninist anarchism is the foundation. The classical liberalism of the Enligtenment thinkers and American founders is the soil on which the foundation is laid and modern free market economics provides the overall structural framework of the building. Traditional American populism is the general external design. Ideas on strategy and infrastructure acquired from the militia/patriot milieu are the nails and screws. Traditionalist conservative emphasis on intermediary institutions as a bulwark against the state, Third Positionist and “national-anarchist” criticisms of the pernicious influence of international Zionism and the need for cross-ideological alliances against globalism and those elements of Marxism and Maoism that I find useful comprise the remainder of the interior decorating and external trimmings. Confused yet?

Although I relate all of this personal information for the purpose of providing the reader with a case study of someone who was “converted” from hard leftism to the free market position, I doubt my case is typical. For one thing, I was not raised in a leftist environment. Many leftist-anarchists are the progeny of former 60s radicals. Most of them have been educated in state schools and universities by leftist educrats. Add to this mix the influence of the mass media, MTV-culture and the punk rock subculture and it becomes obvious that we have our work cut out for us. As I mentioned, I rejected the hysterical identity politics common to the left early on. However, many leftist-anarchists consider these to be the defining characteristics and core principles of their ideology. Also, I am not one who can easily force dogma on my own mind. It is too easy for me to see different aspects of questions and see through bullshit.

I think the core problem in trying to engage in dialogue and outreach work with leftist-anarchists is the hypermoralistic attitude that typically accompanies their views. They tend to regard their ideological opponents as being not simply in error but in sin. This never worked for me when I was in that milieu. It is difficult for me to conceive of anything in moralistic terms. My own anarchism is neither moralistic nor utilitarian. I conceive of anarchism as an aesthetic principle within a broader social framework of a human existence ordered on the basis of a war of each against all. In the realm of moral philosophy, I tend to have more in common with moral skeptics like Hobbes, Machiavelli, Stirner and Nietzsche than natural rights theorists like Locke or Rothbard, utilitarians like Mill or Mises or egalitarian humanists like Rosseau, Marx or Chomsky. Bertrand Russell expressed skepticism as to whether questions of ethics or morality were even a legitimate branch of philosphy as these seemed to be matters of opinion and emotion. The psychology of the left seems to me to be more similar to that of a religious fundamentalism than anything else.

I agree with virtually all of Nexus’ points and doubt I could add anything other than a few passing observations. Nexus tends to focus on the strictly political and economic differences between market and leftist anarchists. These differences are certainly important but I believe the cultural and psychological differences are even more significant. Most market anarchists seem to approach their politics with an social attitude of live and let live combined with a belief in the general beneficence of free market economics. However, leftists tend to approach things from the perspective of a utopian universalism. For them, it is not enough to leave others alone and be left alone. Instead, they seek a utopia where perceived evil and impurity have been eradicated. They envision a perfect world where any and all poverty, inadequate health care, inequality, prejudice, pollution, etc. has disappeared. Although I believe a stateless free market economy would produce a much higher level of aggregate wealth than at present, and that wealth would be more evenly distributed, I recognize and accept that some would still be better off than others and that some people would at times go without things that they needed. Such is life. Similarly, through education and experience forms of bigotry can be reduced or marginalized, but irrational prejudice by some against others is never going to go away entirely. Even if every contemporary bigotry of this type were to disappear, others would come along to take their place. This is simply a reality that the left cannot digest. Their mentality is of the type Proudhon was referring to when he described those who would remake the constellations into patterns more to their liking. Anarchism is not a passport for reentry into Eden. It is simply the best that there is.

While I tend to be rather strident in my criticisms of leftist-anarchists, I actually have a more optimistic view of these elements than one might surmise. There are a number of these groups that operate in my own local community whom I have a positive and respectful personal relationship with. Some of them are quite doctrinaire in their views yet they tolerate my own idiosyncrasies. We have collaborated on a number of projects in the past. I’ve had some of them on my television talk show and I’ve published articles in their ‘zines. I’m always meeting kids in the punk rock anarchist scene who I manage to at least partially interest in some of my own ideas. I met the anarchist-black nationalist theoretician Lorenzo Komboa Erving and, although he wasn’t entirely smitten with my persective, we were at least able to engage in some meaningful dialogue. Recently, I was talking to a young lady who called herself a socialist-anarchist, thought Osama bin Laden was a pretty cool guy and insisted all guns, and even bows and arrows, should be banned. I managed to bring her out of her anti-gun madness by posing the simple rhetorical question “Why should the pigs (i.e, cops, military, prison guards, etc.) have all the weapons?”. It works every time. I think the key to making some serious connections between market and leftist anarchists might be to influence some influential persons in the leftist-anarchist milieu in our direction. Not that they would or should necessarily abandon their own beliefs, but rather if they were to simply develop a more open minded and tolerant attitude towards other anarchists and a willingness to collaborate on common issues, this might begin to move things in the right direction. Meanwhile, let’s emphasize some common values-freedom of association, as Nexus points out, and also decentralization, mutual aid, localism, community, solidarity, freedom of choice, et.al. Leftist-anarchists say they believe in all of these things. Let them prove it.

Copyright 2002. American Revolutionary Vanguard. All rights reserved.

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