Tag Archives: Theory


Alternate Tendencies of Anarchism

Uri Gordon (2008). Anarchy Alive!
Michael Schmidt & Lucien van der Walt (2009). Black Flame.

It has been stated by various theorists that there are two main trends in modern anarchism. How they are conceptualized varies with the writer. I will state how I see the two broad tendencies in the anarchist movement, using the above two books to illustrate the two trends (this is particularly not a review of Black Flame). I will describe them as differing on the issues of revolution or reformism, of democracy, of what “prefigurative politics” mean, and of attitudes toward the working class.

Near the beginning of a recent book on anarchism by Uri Gordon (2008), an Israeli anarchist, the author discusses the “most prominent division” among anarchists. He starts with the way this was framed by David Graeber (2002) of the U.S. as between “a minority tendency of ‘sectarian’ or ‘capital-A anarchist groups,’” which have developed, dogmatic, political programs, and “a majority tendency of ‘small-a anarchists’…who ‘are the real locus of historical dynamism right now’” and who are much looser programmatically (Gordon 2008; p.23–24; for my views on Graeber’s anarchism, see Price 2007). The only group Graeber referred to as sectarian, dogmatic, big-A, anarchist, was the Northeastern Federation of Anarchist-Communists (I am a member of NEFAC, but not an official spokesperson).

Gordon thinks there is “something” to Graeber’s distinction, but that it should be more “subtly” interpreted. First of all, “capital-A groups are hardly a minority tendency …[having] many thousands of members” (p. 24). This is especially true if we include the memberships of the anarchist-syndicalist unions in Europe and elsewhere. Contrary to charges of “sectarianism” and “dogmatism,” Gordon notes that most “platformists” do not regard Makhno’s Organizational Platform of 1926 as a sacred text but treat it as a beginning for discussion. (Often, calling someone “dogmatic” is a writer’s way of saying that someone disagrees with the writer and is stubbornly refusing to accept the writer’s opinion.)

Instead, Gordon sees the distinction between the two tendencies as over “political culture” (this is a non-ideological way of discussing differences). One trend (the capital-A anarchists) identifies with “the traditional political culture of the anarchist movement established before the Second World War” (p.25). He says that they have formal structures with elected officials, and that decisions are often made through votes. They emphasize workplace organizing, anti-war actions, and publishing their ideas. The other (small-a) trend does not care much about anarchist traditions, has only informal groups, makes decisions by consensus, and, he writes, focuses on ecology, identity politics, experimental community, and Eastern spirituality.

“The difference between the two anarchisms is generational — an ‘Old School’ and a ‘New School’” (same). Without wanting to denounce the Old School anarchists, Gordon (like Graeber) is plainly on the side of the New School of anarchism. (He is not always so nonsectarian; later in his book, he angrily denounces my views on Israel/ Palestine — which is not directly related to my topic here; see pp. 149 — 151; responded to in Price 2009).

While I think that Gordon has accurately distinguished the two main trends in current anarchism, I do not think that Old versus New is a useful way to understand the division. Many of the so-called New School views he cites can be found way back in anarchist history, starting with Proudhon and Stirner and others. Gordon specifically cites Gustav Landauer’s concepts from 1911, to illustrate his own views. Many of these ideas were raised by Paul Goodman and Colin Ward, among other anarchists, in the 60s and 70s. Few of the New School’s ideas are all that new.

Read More

( Hierarchies are systematically stupid and inefficient, for the following reasons:

1. Hayekian information problems: The people in authority who make the rules interfere with the people who know how to do the job and are in direct contact with the situation. The people who make the rules know nothing about the work they’re interfering with. The people who make the rules are unaccountable to the people who do know how to do the work. Consequently, all authority-based rules create suboptimal results and irrationality when they interfere with the judgment of those in direct contact with the situation.

People in authority make stupid decisions because the people who know more than they do are their subordinates, and the only people who can hold them accountable know even less than they do.

The only way the people doing the work can get anything done is to treat irrational authority as an obstacle to be routed around, the same way the Internet treats censorship as damage and routes around it.

2. Groupthink: Hierarchies systematically suppress negative feedback on the results of their policies. As R.A. Wilson said, nobody tells the truth to a man with a gun. Hierarchies are very good at telling naked emperors how good their clothes look.

Hierarchies also systematically suppress critical thinking ability in their members. Psychological studies have found that people in positions of authority become less likely to evaluate communications based on their internal logic, and instead evaluate them based on the authority of the source.

3. Opacity from above: A major theme of “Seeing Like a State,” by James Scott, is that states try to make populations “legible” from above, and hence more amenable to control. We might add a “seeing like a boss” corrollary about the analogous phenomenon inside hierarchies. The problem is that such legibility is very costly, if not impossible, to achieve.

Hospitals are a good example. Most of the paperwork that nurses are required to fill out results from the fact that management doesn’t trust them to do what it wants them to do without some independent means of verification. But the paperwork is worthless, unless management operates on the assumption that those same nurses can be trusted to fill out the paperwork honestly. It all boils down to the fact that management knows their interests are diametrically opposed to those of the nurses, but there’s no way to actually get inside the nurses’ heads and look out through their eyes and thereby overcome this fundamental agency problem. So bosses constantly look for new, ineffectual gimmicks to get around the problem, resulting in endless layers of new paperwork that are as useless as the old paperwork.

Conclusion: To the extent that hierarchical organizations leave subordinates with freedom of exit, they are not coercive in the same way that the state is. But given that hierarchies are artificially prevalent because of state policies, and those who work within them do so as a necessary evil resulting from artificial constraints on the range of competing opportunities, the hierarchy resembles a microcosm of statist society, in which the agency and knowledge problems of authority internally mirror the irrationalities created by state authority in society at large.

So long as the predominant production methods required large aggregations of capital beyond the means of individuals and small groups, and corporate hierarchies were propped up by state ones, the cultural pathologies of hierarchy were surmountable. But technological change is rapidly eroding the requirement for capital outlays, nullifying the advantages of capital ownership, and increasing the vulnerability of hierarchy to external and internal attacks by self-organized networks.

So hierarchies, increasingly, lack the resources to compensate for their handicaps — even with help from the state. The state will only bankrupt itself, along with corporate hierarchies, in trying to prop up the old order.

Kevin Carson, “Why Self-Organized Networks Will Destroy Hierarchies — A Credo,” under a Creative Commons license

C4SS Research Associate Kevin Carson is a contemporary mutualist author and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.

By ⋅ Oct. 13, 2011


( … The great message which Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has for the world today is the message of voluntary poverty.

John Cort, friend of Peter’s and still living, said that the most vital message of the Catholic Worker movement is the praise of voluntary poverty.

Voluntary poverty is liberating. It frees people to use their skills in the service of others without wage concern.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, tells us that because Peter had chosen to be poor he had remained free; he had time to think. He lived a rich and abundant life because of that very poverty (Catholic Worker, February 1945).

Peter understood something that St. Francis knew, that detachment from material things is the mysterious key to spiritual freedom, to joy and to the ability to possess things as God wishes us to possess them, on loan, as it were, for this life (Arthur Sheehan, Peter Maurin, Hanover House, 1959, p. 11) Peter quoted Johannes Jorgensen’s biography of St. Francis, who taught that our work should be given away as a gift.
Opposed Wage System

Dorothy Day speaks further of Peter’s voluntary poverty prior to their starting the Catholic Worker movement: “For the seven years before I met him, he had worked as caretaker in New York State at a boys’ camp during the winter. As far as I could gather, he lived with the horse in the barn. He mended the roads, broke rock and cut ice.

“Peter was vehemently opposed to the wage system, so he received in return for his labor, which he pointed out was voluntarily given, the return gift of enough food and clothing from the village store to supply his needs, a place to sleep and the use of the priest’s library, without which he never would have stayed upstate so long. He never refused to give alms, no matter how poor he was. He believed in poverty and loved it and felt it a liberating force. He differentiated between poverty and destitution.” (The Long Loneliness, Harper San Francisco, pp. 178-179). Read More

( Originally published on ZNet:

[A variation of this talk was delivered today, Friday, May 29th at the B-Fest in Athens, Greece. The gathering is an international anti-authoritarian festival hosted by the Babylonia newspaper, at the University ofFine Arts in Athens, from May 27-31. The purpose of the gathering is to explore vision and strategy after last December’s social uprising there.]

Hello, today’s track is called “Land & Freedom” and I’ve been asked to talk on the subject of Participatory Society: Urban Space and Freedom.

Before I begin, however, I would like to thank you for inviting me here today and for hosting this conference. This is the first time I’ve been to Greece and it is an honor to be here under such circumstances.

Greece knows all too well the barbarism of U.S. imperialism and as Greeks struggle to change their society today so too do we struggle in the U.S. against oppressive forces there. We in the U.S. need to catch up in our political consciousness, organization, and concern for vision. This conference is exemplary in its mission to look at the past and present to strategize for the future. While here I hope to learn from you to see what I can take back home. The overarching goal that should unite everyone everywhere, ultimately, is a hope and effort to overcome today’s systemic problems while developing shared vision of a fundamentally new society and the struggle for its realization. That is what we are working towards here today. Read More

( Anarchism has been challenged for its supposed lack of vision about post-revolutionary society. In particular, Michael Albert challenges the great anarchist Malatesta. Actually Malatesta did have a post-capitalist vision. it was not a formal model but a set of ideas which were to be developed through experimentation, flexibility, and pluralism. The highpoints of his political life are outlined. His ideas are contrasted with that of other great radicals. Read More

( An online poll organised by United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. suggests there is strong support for burying Lenin’s body. Of more than 250,000 people who have voted in the poll, two-thirds so far say Lenin should now be buried. The revolutionary leader’s embalmed body has been on display in a mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow since his death in 1924. It is believed that Lenin’s personal wish was to be buried alongside his mother but Stalin decided on mummification and diefication.

The Socialist Standard obituary from 1924 of Lenin can be read here 

SOYMB not only concurs with the majority opinion of this poll but adds that we also wish to bury Lenin’s political legacy with him. Lenin’s elitism was consistent with the outlook of the Second International. The difference between Kautsky and Lenin here was over who was to lead the workers beyond “trade-union consciousness”, though historically Lenin’s interpretation that this should be a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries has been more influential. By contrast, the Socialist Party repudiated leadership as a political principle and insisted that the emancipation of the working class really had to be the work of the working class itself.

Marx’s theory of socialist revolution is grounded on the fundamental principle that “the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself”. Marx held to this view throughout his entire forty years of socialist political activity, and it distinguished his theory of social change from that of both those who appealed to the princes, governments and industrialists to change the world for the benefit of the working class (such as Robert Owen and Saint Simon) and of those who relied on the determined action of some enlightened minority of professional revolutionaries to liberate the working class (such as Buonarotti, Blanqui and Weitling). At first the movement of the working class would be, Marx believed, unconscious and unorganised but in time, as the workers gained more experience of the class struggle and the workings of capitalism, it would become more consciously socialist and democratically organised by the workers themselves. The emergence of socialist understanding out of the experience of the workers could thus be said to be “spontaneous” in the sense that it would require no intervention by people outside the working class to bring it about. Socialist propaganda and agitation would indeed be necessary but would come to be carried out by workers themselves whose socialist ideas would have been derived from an interpretation of their class experience of capitalism. The end result would be an independent movement of the socialist-minded and democratically organised working class aimed at winning control of political power in order to abolish capitalism.

Lenin’s greatest positive achievement was getting Russia out of the bloody futility of World War One, something that the Socialist Party acknowledged at the time. The Socialist Party was the only British organisation to publish the Bolsheviks’ anti-war declaration during the war.The Bolsheviks promised peace and – to their highest credit- established it. That this peace has been broken and they have been compelled to take up war again is due entirely to the imperialist aims of the capitalist class of Europe. The trouble really started when claims about the “socialist” nature of Russia began to be aired, first within Russia then in the Communist parties being formed around the world. The false claims about Russian “socialism” are largely derived from Lenin’s opportunism as he distorted Marxism – working class socialist theory. In this country, the Socialist Party always denied that socialism existed in Russia (or anywhere else) or that Russia was on a transition towards socialism.

For its anti-democratic elitism and its advocacy of an irrelevant transitional society misnamed “socialism”, in theory and in practice, Leninism today deserves the hostility of workers everywhere. Lenin seriously distorted Marxism and thereby severely damaged the development of the socialist movement. Indeed, Leninism still continues to pose a real obstacle to the achievement of socialism. The Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia put the clock back in the sense that before the First World War the radical wing of the international Social Democratic movement was making progress towards positions similar to those of the Socialist Party in Britain but, after 1917, most of those involved were side-tracked into supporting the Bolsheviks. For many this was only a temporary dalliance, but the damage had been done. Crucially, when they were to break with the Bolshevik regime they did not entirely break with the Bolsheviks’ ideas, regarding themselves as “left-wing communists” as they called themselves; in particular they accepted that the Russian revolution had been some sort of “working-class” revolution which had gone wrong but which still had some positive lessons for workers in the rest of Europe.

There is a wide chasm between the views of Marx and those of Lenin in their understanding of the nature of socialism, of how it would be achieved and of the manner of its administration. Marx’s vision is a stateless, classless and moneyless society which, by its nature, could only come to fruition when a conscious majority wanted it and wherein the affairs of the human family would be democratically administered. A form of social organisation in which people would voluntarily contribute their skills and abilities in exchange for the freedom of living in a society that guarantees their needs and wherein the poverty, repression and violence of capitalism would have no place.

by ajohnstone