Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Maurice Brinton's "For Workers' Power"

[The following is a book review I wrote for the journal International Labor and Working Class History in 2005. It was published a year later, but without any notification. I stumbled upon it while doing a database search on "anarchism" and "labor movements". How ironic. Also, I have since been contacted by a comrade of Brinton who informs me that Brinton was concerned with questions of race and colonialism, but that such essays were not selected for this volume. I fear my review may have underestimated the nature and tenor of the British anarchist movement during Brinton's writing, but one could claim that Marxist-Leninism dominated the Left more than anarchism did--perhaps unlike today.]

Maurice Brinton is the pen-name for the distinguished British neurologist and revolutionary socialist Chris Pallis. As “Brinton”, Pallis wrote highly influential propaganda for the British group Solidarity from the early 1960s through the 1970s. Solidarity published a magazine of the same name for years, and participated in the UK’s anti-nuclear and labor movements. According to this volume’s editor, David Goodway, Brinton was the intellectual mainstay of Solidarity and was the group’s most frequent author.

For Workers’ Power is a rousing collection of dozens of essays written over a period of decades by Brinton, including analytical and philosophical pieces, eye-witness accounts, and book reviews. He was widely known as the English translator of the French libertarian-socialist Cornelius Castoriadis--and this volume includes a number of reviews and introductions to Castoriadis’s work. All of Brinton’s essays simmer with an intensely critical eye toward how every day working people have and can liberate themselves from the oppression, drudgery, and weight of capitalism, while avoiding what Brinton saw as the pseudo- or counter-revolutionary methods of many leftists.

Brinton slays many of the Left’s sacred cows: he hits the left-liberal political parties for their reformism, big trade unions for their hierarchy and disconnect from rank-and-file, and the main socialist and Leninist-Marxists groups for their power-lust and vanguardism. He even gives the anarchists--with whom he has the strongest affinity--an occasional lashing for some of their adherents’ rashness and fantasy.

But, he reserves his strongest criticism for his fellow so-called revolutionaries who adhere to the dogma of Marxist-Leninism. Although he continually--and sometimes favorably--returns to quoting Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, he still laments their actions as activists and the actions of those who later use their words for a laundry-list of what Brinton perceives as sell-outs of the working class. His favorite criticism of Lenin, which appears repeatedly throughout this volume, is Lenin’s distrust and lack of faith in everyday working people. Brinton, as a proponent of revolutionary social action by all people, particularly workers, finds Lenin’s position abhorrent: “the working class... is able to develop only trade union consciousness”. Brinton’s own eye-witness accounts of workers in Belgium, France, and Portugal, as well as his analysis of workers elsewhere seems to suggest the opposite (and the obvious); workers have repeatedly acted beyond the confines of their union and forged revolutionary situations which have allowed for larger gains than a union bureaucracy could. To further illustrate his argument, Brinton notes how the very followers of Lenin are often those who work to reign in the very workers who are “unable” to rise above union consciousness, but seem to be doing it all the same. The “functionalist” role of unions to buffer the working and elite classes, and to normalize and regulate class conflict is implicit in Brinton’s observations, just as in Aronowitz’s (1973) important work, False Promises.

Brinton’s political ideology is explicitly anti-authoritarian socialist. To the average observer, this critique would seem, superficially, no different from the average capitalist cheerleader. However, Brinton’s continuous flaying of Stalinist, Leninist, and Troskyists stems not just from a political repulsion to their writing and spoken dogma, but from his repeated observations of these forces selling-out working class interests when solidarity is needed most. His writing thus appears to be more “left” than even the so-called “ultra-left”. He lambastes the Belgian Communist Party for trying to takeover and control the country’s general strike in late 1960. Using compelling evidence, he accuses the French Communist Party of sabotaging the popular strikes in Paris in 1968 by trying to encourage workers to return to their factories in exchange for miniscule improvements in their jobs--and political rewards for Party honchos. Brinton’s popular pamphlet The Bolsheviks and Workers Control (fully included in the volume) is a merciless critique of how Lenin squeezed economic control from the Soviets by the cynical idea of “worker control”, which amounted to little control, let alone self-management.

A few pieces in For Workers’ Power are introductions to or reviews of articles about historic events. Brinton provides a critical lens to new interpretations of historic events like the Paris Commune, the Kronstadt sailors’ revolt in the Soviet Union, and the dissolution of the factory committees by the Bolsheviks. He also editorializes from afar about unfolding events in Europe, including a general strike in Ulster, Northern Ireland, a factory occupation in Kirkby, England, and the materialization of the independent labor movement in Poland during 1980.

In addition to the excellent first-hand accounts of workers involved in struggles for self-management, the surprising treat in For Workers’ Power is Brinton’s review of the influential books of his time. It is easy in retrospect to critique decades-old works with 20-20 hindsight, but Brinton applies a thoughtful analysis of books at the time when the events were still taking place. The Paris student and worker uprising of May 1968, captured in Cliff and Birchall’s pamphlet France: The Struggle Goes On and the Cohn-Bendit brothers’ Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative book are dissected as the hot, current events they were at the time. Contemporary readers would be left digesting these works three decades after being published, without knowing how authoritative other activists viewed them to be.

If one expects a dry, unemotional account of these momentous events, Brinton’s activist-cum-historian writing will be startling. Although very precise and accurate with his accounting, he clearly has taken sides in these matters--he is on the side of the workers, always. His writing intends to inform readers about past events, but it is always directed toward the goal of solving the shortcomings of the working classes in these events; he uses history as a tool to inform future uprisings, strikes, and revolutions.

One wonders what he might have thought about non-European revolts, such as the anti-colonialist movements, or civil rights in the US (such as the urban riots of the 1960s). Would his critique of class allow for the consideration of racial conflict? This omission may be a simple reflection of where Brinton’s focus tends to be: on European class conflict. During the period he writes of, most anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles took place in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The reader could count on one hand the number of times that race is even mentioned, and it is usually done descriptively, not analytically. Very little is written about nationalist movements, nor on other issues of contemporary concern, such as today’s so-called “new social movements” like the peace, environmental, feminist, and GLBT movements--although this deficit may be the result of a deliberate choice made by the editor, not the author.

Although eschewing the “anarchist” label, Brinton’s work is undeniably anarchistic in nature. Yet, during the period in which he mostly wrote (the 1960s and 1970s) the British anarchist movement was lackluster to say the least. As such, Brinton seems to have a lack of anarchist writing in his background and subsequently does not pull ideas from anarchist or libertarian works as much as he does from Marxist-Leninist ones. As a result, in his review of Paul Avrich’s The Russian Anarchists, he misunderstands Kropotkin’s basic argument in Mutual Aid (1902)--that cooperation is merely another force of human evolution, not the counter-point to competition as Brinton implies (p. 86). Additionally, he misses the many sources where Kropotkin observes and does argue for class conflict; Brinton is thus caught replicating the common Marxist-Leninist arguments against and misunderstandings of Kropotkin and other anarchists.

These deficits aside, the anarchist publisher AK Press saw fit to publish this historically-important and contemporary collection of essays. Brinton’s writings have long-inspired left and radical movements, and hopefully with this printing will reach even wider audiences.

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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Overthrowing the State (Without Using the State): Political Opportunity for Anarchist Movements

[A co-author and I are trying to get this article published somewhere... it previously got tripped-up due to methodological concerns, now the length is a bit unwieldy. But, it's a damn good study, we think. We're trying another venue at present. Here's the introduction.]

Routine social movement behaviors that petition, protest, or lobby governments to change or adopt certain laws or policies are familiar to most in modern societies. However, these now-regular patterns of movement-state interaction are premised on the assumption that movements want something from the state that states are able to give. Some movements—anarchism, for example—have no interest in anything that states are willing to offer, nor do such radical movements attempt to convince states to quit and dissolve themselves through targeted lobbying efforts. What does movement activity and protest mean for such movements, under these conditions? This article answers this question from a political opportunity perspective using the case histories of country-level anarchist movement activity.

As a political tradition, anarchism dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. Influenced by the most radical currents of the Enlightenment, anarchism emerged as a revolt against the solidifying nation-state, early capitalism, and still-present influence of religious authority. Anarchists not only critiqued the centralizing and bureaucratic qualities of these institutions, but advocated the creation of horizontal, egalitarian, and cooperative institutions in their place. Even though “anarchism” literally refers to “without rule” (Gordon 2006), and thus an opposition to all forms of domination and control by others, it has historically been summarized as an opposition to the state (Ehrlich 1996, Joll 1964, Ward 1996). Herein, we understand anarchism’s antagonism toward authority in the sense meaningful to anarchist movements, rather than the limited, popular understanding: as a broad challenge to all forms of domination, not just that of the state.

Anarchists have never been able to rid society of the state, although not for lack of trying. Anarchism, as a radical ideology, appears to possess a near child-like naivety towards the possibility of social change. Accordingly, resistance and change are not only possible in the darkest moments of human history, but are also potentially present in everyday life. Anarchists tend to advocate seizing the opportunities within these moments and helping to encourage others toward a more liberatory future. Thus, while acknowledging the power, influence, and limitations of existing political and social structures, anarchists also implicitly emphasize the capacity for human agency.

Politically, the anarchist movement argues that opportunities always exist to resist the present social order and to create a new world. Consequently, “Revolution now!” would be an applicable anarchist slogan. Anarchism differentiates itself from other revolutionary ideologies such as Marxism by rejecting any delay in revolution. Waiting for “the people” to be ready or to trust that the state will “wither away” eventually is not seen by anarchists as an excuse for inaction. In fact, state participation in the pursuit of revolution is inherently problematic. For example, the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wrote: “No state, however democratic—not even the reddest republic—can ever give the people what they really want, i.e., the free self-organization and administration of their own affairs from the bottom upward, without any interference or violence from above” (Dolgoff 1971: 338).

Strategy in the anarchist movement is radical and multi-faceted. Anarchism focuses on the web of relationships between not only individuals and society, but also amongst major institutions, such as the state, capitalism, military, patriarchy, White supremacy, and heterosexism. Within each relationship, people may act to create a society less encumbered by hierarchy, domination, and authority. Thus, opportunities always exist to create egalitarian, horizontal, and cooperative relationships. This article investigates the anarchist movement within these spaces and moments, both past and present. Yet, some opportunities have been more conducive to the anarchist movement and some of these moments have been more fruitfully exploited.

This article addresses the following interrelated questions. Can the theory of political opportunities (as summarized by McAdam 1996) be used—or at least re-packaged—to understand the anarchist movement? We focus on a half-dozen country case studies to better understand the varied experiences of mobilization and decline for anarchist movements throughout the world, seen through the lens of a modified political opportunity theory. What major opportunities has anarchism recently seized upon (and sometimes unintentionally benefited from) to expand its ranks and advance its goals? Our analysis of the narratives of anarchists discovers a variety of country-specific and global opportunities that assisted in the growth and decline of movements. In particular, an authoritarian or partisan Left’s success reduced anarchist opportunities, while supportive non-anarchist milieus—such as the labor and punk movements—served as fruitful grounds for inspiration, personnel recruitment, and accelerated anarchist movement mobilization. Curiously, anarchist narratives viewed increased state repression as having divergent effects on different country’s movements.


Dolgoff, Sam. 1971. Bakunin on Anarchy: Selected Works by the Activist-Founder of World Anarchism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ehrlich, Howard J. 1996. Reinventing Anarchy, Again. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Gordon, Uri. 2006. “Research Note: Avαρχία -- What Did the Greeks Actually Say?”. Anarchist Studies, 14 (1): 84-91.

Joll, James. 1964. The Anarchists. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.

McAdam, Doug. 1996. “Conceptual Origins, Current Problems, Future Directions”. Pp. 23-40 in Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings, edited by D. McAdam, J. D. McCarthy, and M. N. Zald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ward, Colin. 1996. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Learning Social Anarchism by Practicing Anarchism

[Introduction to a co-authored draft article to be sent to Teaching Sociology, based on a special topics class taught on anarchism.]

How would a college classroom work if it was established on anarchist principles? What if the instructor asked the students to design their own syllabus, figure out what they wanted to learn for themselves, and run the class on their own? This is the very learning experiment that one of the co-authors conducted, for a class that was itself to study anarchism. Can practicing anarchy daily in a course actually help students to learn more about anarchism?

A fair amount of teaching scholarship has focused on student learning from service learning projects that make classroom subject matter “come alive”, but very little has been done on how students learn when the course structure is designed to help them learn about a particular subject. This paper presents preliminary findings and reflections on one attempt to do this at a large research-level university in the US Midwest. We conclude that most students tended to have a favorable appreciation of the class structure, while expressing concerns and frustrations with its challenges.

This course’s instructor was asked by students (who knew each other from an extra-university setting) to teach a class on anarchism. Since no such class existed at the university, the instructor agreed but asked the students to seek out an appropriate department in which to teach the class. The department chair of the Sociology department (the instructor’s home department) offered to host it as a special topics class.

Anarchism has been a relatively “hot” subject during the last decade, due to the anarchist movement’s growing prominence throughout the world and increased visibility in the mass media. Also, the instructor identifies as an anarchist and as a public sociologist, and sought to share the many ideas and practices of anarchism to students. To do this, the instructor wanted students to experience anarchism first hand in a challenging learning environment. There have undoubtedly been university-level classes that have included or even focused explicitly on anarchism, but few have likely attempted to practice anarchism in the classroom. Given this gaping chasm of knowledge and experience, this paper discusses the possibilities for alternative, anarchist learning techniques in college classrooms. We also specifically analyze the results of an experiential learning course on anarchism.

Anarchism and sociology share common origins in the modernism of the Enlightenment (Purkis 2004). Although the two share some roots, anarchism and sociology have had starkly different domains of influence and objectives. Where sociology sought to understand society, anarchism sought to transform society through the maximization of human freedom (both individual and collective). Like sociology, anarchism has been founded on both classical liberal and radical aspirations. Sociology has been driven by the scientific method and academic interests, while anarchism—in its classical and modern versions—has been led by certain key values, which guide movement participants.

The values of anarchism stand in opposition to the major institutions that existed during the mid-19th century (or were coming to predominate modern social life), including hierarchically-organized religious, the centralized nation-state, and industrial capitalism (see Dolgoff 1996, Goldman 1969, and Malatesta 1995). The traditional aspirations of anarchists during this time have been broadened, as contemporary anarchists seek alternatives to structures and manifestations of patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, bureaucratization, ecological destruction, and other relations that they argue inhibit human freedom (Ward 1996, Ehrlich 1996, and Milstein 2010). In the place of the domination, authority, and centralization, anarchists sought (and seek) to transform the social order as to create horizontal, decentralized, cooperative, and egalitarian relationships. These values are represented in a number of key ideas.

Anarchism is premised upon a strong form of anti-authoritarianism: no one should be able to tell others what to do or be able to coerce others (including: employers, government official, religious leaders, teachers and principals, military officers, and police). In place of authority figures, anarchists value self-management. People are capable of and should be determining for themselves what they do and when with their own work; people should be able to reserve the ultimate authority to decide something for themselves, not have to rely on experts or bosses. Since individual freedom requires others’ help, anarchists value egalitarian cooperation. People are born equals and should be able to help each other out for the common good (a.k.a. “mutual aid”). Such cooperation requires direct-democracy, where people can participate together in such a way that individual and collective needs and responsibilities get met. It is more efficient, empowering, practical to do something yourself (for yourself) than ask or wait for someone else to do it for you (especially if that other person ranks above you); thus anarchism prioritizes the worth of direct action, as opposed to indirect, representative action taken on behalf of others.

Most major institutions have found themselves in anarchism’s analytical cross-hairs, including education. Anarchists believe that formal institutions of education tend to be premised upon domination and do not serve the interests of students or learners, but of elites. For example, Paul Goodman (1960) argued that the American education system trains students for ends determined by the dominant social system, not the students’ own interests. Compulsory education has served the purposes of societal elites, generally, so argue anarchists William Godwin, Francisco Ferrer, and Ivan Illich. Thus, the intention and structural result of such education is to instill obedience to capitalists within the labor market and patriotism for nation-states (Spring 1998). While most focus has been on primary and secondary education, anarchists have also critiqued universities: Martin (1998) has described the ways in which higher education acts a complex system, of interlocking forms of domination, each resulting in constrained, stunted, and unfree participants.

Anarchist responses to the authoritarian character of education do not preclude their agreement and value on learning, socialization, and knowledge acquisition. Instead, education ought to be motivated and driven by different logics and values, while being conducted in far different, more liberatory ways. Deschooling has been one prominent position for anarchists: thus Illich (1970) argued for avoiding formal education altogether, perhaps instead pursuing homeschooling or learning in freer environments. Anarchists have experimented with many different types of environments. For example teach-ins and “skill share” sessions, allow people to directly interact with other interested learners and share ideas, without a hierarchical authority figure and a topic of practical concern. Others have developed larger projects called “free skools”, where learning takes place in a non-hierarchical environment away from official education sites, amongst learners who want to be there (not have to be there) and want knowledge (not a degree or a job). Classical-era anarchists actually developed sizable school systems of this character; in the US these were called Modern Schools. They provided secular education for working class children in a liberal and class-conscious environment (Avrich 2006).

While these experiments are interesting, anarchist participation in universities is of more critical importance here. During the late-1960s and 1970s, anarchists projected radical New Left ideas into the student movement, influencing building occupations and the foundation of alternative education programs, such as the anarchist Tolstoy College within the SUNY system. Specifically, anarcho-syndicalism argues that workers ought to try to gain control over their own labor and workplaces (Rocker 2004). These syndicalist ideas were adapted by a non-anarchist New Leftist named Carl Davidson (1990) in his essay “Student Syndicalism”. According to student syndicalism, learners should control university decision-making, abolish the grading system, and thoroughly incorporate the ideology of participatory democracy. Anarcho-syndicalist ideas suggest that student’s learning is their own: learning is their responsibility, their project, and done for their own reasons. Consequently, learning needs to be controlled, executed, and inspired by students themselves. Students, but other knowledge workers should control the education environments in which they study and work.

Anarchist activists have developed practical techniques for working collaboratively, too. The prioritization of direct democracy means anarchists value the need of large numbers of people to be empowered enough to collectively clarify ideas, stake-out positions, and work with each other. When many people are involved in direct democracy, anarchist prefer “popular assemblies” that are run by popular will, not by the manipulation of leaders. Preferably, people can find ways of coming to a consensus. In order to practice consensus decision-making, activists have created processes and techniques that help make the decision-making time and space as egalitarian, group-centered, empowering, and effective as possible. A key contribution here is the structural process of “consensus”, spatial tactics (like sitting in circles), small break-out groups, a reconciliation method for dealing with minority dissent, and the creation of formal roles including facilitators, time-keepers, and scribes (see Bulter & Rothstein 1991, Gelderloos 2006).

Avrich, Paul. 2006. The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Butler, C.T. Lawrence and Amy Rothstein. 1991. On Conflict and Consensus: A Handbook on Formal Consensus Decision Making. Portland, ME: Food Not Bombs.

Davidson, Carl. 1990. The New Radicals in the Multiversity and Other SDS Writings on Student Syndicalism. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr.

Dolgoff, Sam. 1996. Bakunin on Anarchism. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Ehrlich, Howard J. 1996. Reinventing Anarchy, Again. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Gelderloos, Peter. 2006. Consensus: A New Handbook for Grassroots Political, Social, and Environmental Groups. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press.

Goldman, Emma. 1969. Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover.

Goodman, Paul. 1960. Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System. New York: Random House.

Illich, Ivan. 1970. Deschooling Society. New York: Perennial Library.

Malatesta, Errico. 1995. Anarchy. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian. 1998. Tied Knowledge: Power in Higher Education. Self-published. http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/98tk/

Milstein, Cindy. 2010. Anarchism and Its Aspirations. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Purkis, Jonathan. 2004. “Towards an Anarchist Sociology”. Pp. 39-54 in Changing Anarchism: Anarchist Theory and Practice in a Global Age, edited by J. Purkis and J. Bowen. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Spring, Joel. 1998. A Primer of Libertarian Education. Montreal: Black Rose Books.

Ward, Colin. 1996. Anarchy in Action. London: Freedom Press.