Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Social Movement (NSM) Theories and Anarchism: 5. Self-Limiting Radicalism

NSMs eschew grand attempts to seize the state apparatus, whether through dramatic revolution or elections. Efforts to shape society—within the parameters of NSM ideologies—take place in civil society, not within the state. Radical goals are pursued, but often through reformist strategies. Likewise, anarchists have no interest in acquiring representation in or control of the State. Anarchists do not seek to work with the state or in it, but rather seek the state's abolition. Unlike Leninists and Maoists, anarchists do not wish to seize the reins of the State in revolution to allegedly turn it over to workers or peasants. Anarchists argue that to simply replace a right-wing or capitalist government with a left-wing or socialist one would not solve the problem of what the State itself is (i.e. an institution of domination). Nor does the anarchist movement aim to achieve its anti-authoritarian goals through electoralism. Thus, the anarchist movement pursues a radical agenda limited to realms that can be democratized and liberated.

Habermas—by no means an anarchist—argues that NSMs resist the “occupation of the lifeworld” by the state (Habermas 1987). NSMs are “new” since their potential to transform society is not within established politics, but within the socio-cultural sphere. In fact, movements aim to re-appropriate society from the State, which has not only repressed people through violence but also undercut their potential by fostering support upon the State for social welfare. According to anarchist theory, it is counterintuitive to expect liberation from various systems of domination deriving from the State. The State props-up and feeds upon these very systems, and thus the anarchist solution comes from action outside the State. Power is pursued to regain control over one's own life, not to acquire a position within the established halls of power. Anarchists argue that a new world will not be built with the seized apparatus of the State, but by disengaging from all systems of domination and creating alternative institutions that serve human needs and that are in-sync with the natural world. But, as opposed to protecting an abstract “lifeworld” or civil society from state encroachment, anarchists explicitly advocate defense of individuals and their collectivities. This may be seen as another example of radical practicality.

Anarchists seek self-determination, the ability for average people to have control over the daily affairs of their lives. The State does not offer this to all, but to a select few officials who claim to act on the behalf of all. To anarchists, allowing others to make decisions for you, even if the decision-makers are benevolent and you agree with the decisions, is to relinquish one's natural right to self-determination.

Unlike nearly all others on the Left, anarchist organizations do not run candidates for political office. The slogans “our dreams do not fit in their ballot boxes” and “don't just vote, get political” used by anarchists have appeared during recent US presidential elections. Anarchism does not suggest a complete disavowal of politics—or the political matters that people make decisions about—but rather a rejection of the notion that politics is best done via the election of candidates or via the State. Thus, modern anarchism distinguishes between self-determined political activity and the mechanisms of the State (including elections). Anarchism argues that elections and Statecraft are only one part of politics.

If specific policy changes are demanded by anarchists, the goal is not simply a change in policy. Anarchists use changes in policy as launching pads for greater changes, ones that strike even deeper into ruling institutions. Albert (2002) advocates anarchist support for what he calls “non-reformist reforms”; or, in other words, reforms which are not ends in themselves (i.e. “reformism”). Some anarchists have advocated participation in campaigns that involve electoral participation as a means of coalition-building—particularly across race and class boundaries, in order to defeat oppressive laws which would further restrict liberties—instead of advocating voting as a means to an end (Crass 2004).

Self-limiting radicalism should not be read to imply “limited radicalism”. Revolution is the ultimate goal of all anarchists, yet anarchists do not desire or aim to be the coordinators of a mass revolution. Instead, anarchists believe that people as individuals and collectives need to reclaim control over their lives—in a radical fashion—and anarchists do not presume to speak for how others should do this. Mumm (1998) argues that it is much more important and desirable for movements to act anarchistically than to merely have a movement of anarchists. By millions of small-scale transformations and revolts, society will undergo a process of revolution that is undirected and undirectable.

Some anarchists do advocate immediate revolution, even the spontaneous riot of oppressed peoples, which is not limited radicalism. However, even “insurrectionist anarchists” do not think that mass, revolutionary action should be aimed at seizing state power or that a party should direct the insurrection (see Bonanno 1988). Insurrections should topple centralized power, and those immediately engaged in the insurrection should help to disperse and democratize control of society. Thus, anarchists do not have limited ambitions; their “limitedness” refers only to the use of non-state means to accomplish revolution.


Albert, M. (2002) The Trajectory of Change: Activist Strategies for Social Transformation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Bonanno, A. (1988) From Riot to Insurrection: An Analysis for an Anarchist Perspective Against Post Industrial Capitalism. London: Elephant.

Crass, C. (2004) Beyond Voting: Anarchist Organizing, Electoral Politics and Developing Strategy for Liberation. Clamor Communique #42.

Habermas, J. (1987) The Theory of Communicative Action. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mumm, J. (1998) Active Revolution. http://www.infoshop.org/texts/active_revolution.html

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