Sunday, January 16, 2011

More Questions Than Answers: Problems of Conceptual Definition Regarding Anarchist Social Movements

It is very likely that the first question asked by journalists covering protest demonstrations that include the participation of anarchists is: “Who in the hell is an anarchist?” Likewise, most well-intentioned observers would like to know what anarchism is. Thus, the issue of definition is paramount. So, what is “anarchism” and how do we know it “when we see it”? We could approach the identification of “anarchism” from countless vantage points using a variety of methodological approaches. First, we could identify anarchism by its core values: anti-authoritarianism, solidarity, autonomy, mutual aid, liberty, cooperation, decentralization, egalitarianism, direct action, voluntary association, and so forth. If people espouse such values, they are more likely to be anarchists. But, do not many other movements share some of these values? Could non-anarchists not easily adhere to and practice these values without ever realizing they are “anarchist” values? Must we guarantee that all such values are present in order to label something “anarchist”?[1] Does this imply that everything anarchist includes all these traits at all times? And how do we identify these values? If we wait for anarchists to identify these values aloud, we may never notice they are anarchists. We may instead [somewhat] incorrectly categorize many others who use these phrases, but in un-anarchistic ways—for example, many patriotic Americans likely believe in “liberty” as do fanatical consumers who love being able to purchase products created under abominable social and environmental conditions. Yet such “liberty” is very different from that defined by anarchism, who intend it to refer to freedom to live as one chooses, unrestrained by hierarchical power.

Second, we could rely upon people to use the word “anarchist” to describe themselves. We could assume that these self-identified “anarchists” possess anarchist characteristics. Then, by inference we could know what anarchism refers to. But could not anyone simply call themselves an “anarchist” and “make it so”? In fact, this happens semi-regularly, especially in the modern-era. Can capitalists really be anarchists? Sizable collections of ultra-individualists—who seem to have very little real world presence and tend to lurk on the internet together (appropriately so!)—identify as anarcho-capitalists. Murray Rothbard and others may theoretically claim the label of anarchism, but they do not oppose all authority, as other anarchists do—they are highly enamored with markets, class inequality, and authority in the workplace. Thus, most “movement anarchists”--those active in community-based protest movements—argue against the inclusion of these folks in the anarchist camp.[2] Can people who advocate violence against civilians be anarchists? How about people who vote? There are even groupings of people who call themselves “national anarchists”, who subscribe to a thinly-veiled “third position” fascist ideology who identify as anarchists (Macklin 2005)! Spanish anarchist militants who fought Franco in the 1930s would surely roll in their graves knowing the linguistic gymnastics the label “anarchist” is being put through.

The problem plaguing these approaches is that there is no way of “properly” establishing one set of values or social actors as “legitimate” anarchists. The movement lacks an “approval agency” or central committee that could verify memberships or one's adherence to strict party-lines. Perhaps it is the general failure of anarchist politics throughout history that has ironically created its flexibility as well as its promiscuity.[3] Had anarchist been forcefully entrenched somewhere—like Marxist-Leninism was under Stalin's multi-decade rule in the Soviet Union—maybe it would be easier to explicate commonly accepted criteria for anarchism. Instead, all varieties of people with no experience with anarchist history, practice, philosophy, relationships, or understanding, can call themselves anarchists. Consequently, this looseness allows for easy adoption of an anarchist identity, while simultaneously watering down the central factors that make it a distinct movement. This ambiguity not only exists with new recruits and the founders of new “spin-off anarchisms”, but also within the consciously, self-affiliated anarchist movement.[4] The anarchist press debates this question all the time (in newspapers and now on Internet message-boards/listserves): who is or is not an anarchist? To outsiders, this holier-than-thou posturing comes off as sectarian. Such behavior is likely the by-product of a small movement, incidentally populated by a number of paranoid and self-righteous people. The phenomenon is divisive of unity, solidarity. For social scientists, ideological looseness poses a terrible problem of reference and validation. One grouping or ideological subvariant of anarchists thinks the other is not anarchist (and vice-versa); just witness debates between “organizationalists” and “anti-organizationalists”, reds and greens,[5] or anarcho-syndicalists and post-leftists. Who is to be believed? Who is right?

Third, it is confusing enough that adherents disagree about what anarchism is, but the supposedly objective, rational, and learned intellectuals seem to have an equally poor—if not worse—understanding of anarchism. Select nearly any social science or humanities discipline, and one is unlikely to receive a definition of anarchism that is borne of an analysis of current anarchist movements. For example, the political science literature is rife with theorizing of “anarchy”, referring to the international relations between states where no centralized system controls these relations (see Kaplan 2000). Curiously, no one seems terribly bothered by the simple fact that the major actors in this conception of politics are all states! How un-anarchist can such a theory be?[6] In economics the situation is little better: anarchism is apparently best used as a synonym for laissez-faire capitalism, a dog-eat-dog economic system in which each individual must fend for themselves in a Wild West marketplace. Absent again is the easily verifiable history of modern anarchism as an anti-capitalist movement, solidly in opposition to private wealth, greed, and parasitic wage slavery. Philosophy and history are both fond of abstracting the ideas of classical age anarchists or developing new applications to old anarchist ideas; the problem is that these ideas tend to be generated in isolation from actual anarchist movements. For example, philosophers debate anarchist epistemology for science generally, while historians dig deeper into the archives of late 19th century labor unions. Far less emphasis and effort is focused on the here and now. The field of sociology gives scant attention to anarchist characteristics of social order, baffling me and legions of anarchists who seem acute and appropriate students of society. These shortcomings and missed opportunities provide insight into why activists tend to not take intellectuals more seriously.


[1] One probably needs to consider how these anarchist values persist or perish within all areas of society—not just in the government and economy—including within the family, peer groups, cultural organizations, schools, etc.

[2] For example, the popular Anarchy FAQ (McKaye 2007) includes a thorough critique of so-called “anarcho-capitalism” and gives extensive attention to why such a position is at odds with the anarchist tradition.

[3] This perception that anarchism lacked an agreed-upon core set of values and strategies led some Russian anarchists to create a “platform” that anarchists could subscribe to, thereby uniting anarchists upon some common ground. See Skirda (2002) for more on the Platform.

[4] New recruits—almost by definition—join movements knowing less about them than long-experienced participants. Is it methodologically-appropriate to generalize about a movement if only analyzing the newest participants? Also, new ideological subvariants—new anarchists such as post-leftism, post-structuralist anarchism, primitivism, etc.—regularly define themselves in opposition to other, more-established strands. This requires a selective adoption and rejection.

[5] See Williams (2009a) for a study on red and green anarchist ideological subvariants and their geographic dispersion in the United States.

[6] Thankfully, some recent work in international relations has been done, such as that by Alex Prichard and others, that takes anarchism and its traditions seriously—such as the ideas of P.J. Proudhon—instead of treating “anarchy” as if it were merely a word pulled from a dictionary.


Kaplan, Robert D. 2000. The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. New York: Random House.

Macklin, Graham D. 2005. “Co-opting the Counter Culture: Troy Southgate and the National Revolutionary Faction”. Patterns of Prejudice, 39 (3), September: 301-326.

McKaye, Iain. 2007. An Anarchy FAQ: AFAQ Volume One. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Skirda, Alexandre. 2002. Facing the Enemy: A History of Anarchist Organization from Proudhon to May 1968. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Williams, Dana. 2009a. “Red vs. Green: Regional Variation of Anarchist Ideology in the United States”. Journal of Political Ideologies, 14 (2), June: 189-210.

Source: excerpt of a chapter on anarchist movement epistemology.

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