The title of this talk comes from a piece of graffiti, (Be realistic: demand the impossible!)
which was written on a wall in Paris during the May-June events of 1968. This is perhaps the
largest social event in recent history where anarchism achieved, albeit briefly, a mass, society-wide, influence. The slogan prompts the question: Are Anarchists realistic in their opinions
and desires? Or do we demand the impossible? Contemporary Anarchism has many faces. It
is not so much a single ideology or movement but a series of linked ideologies and a mass of
Some of these will be well known or even familiar, others not. For example, all of the
following have a connection with Anarchism:
Motorway protestors, Animal rights activists, Pacifists, Anti-nuclear supporters, Earth-first,
CND, Squatters, Leveller crusties, Anarcho-punks, Raves, New age travellers, Hunt
'Card-carrying' Anarchists can be divided among several broad groupings. These are Anarcho-communists, Anarcho-syndicalists, Class Struggle Anarchists, Anarcho-individualists,
Evolutionary Anarchists, Situationists, Anarcho-pacifists, Green-Anarchists, Anarcho-Capitalists.
The words Anarchy and Anarchism derive from the Greek, firstly the prefix 'an' meaning
without, secondly 'archon' meaning ruler. Anarchy means the state of being without a ruler.
Anarchists advocate anarchy not in the pejorative sense of advocating chaos, but advocate by
the term a society with a natural order, based upon individual freedom and voluntary co-operation, where to quote Proudhon,".... Liberty is the mother not the daughter of order....".
G D H Cole put it in a slightly different way when he said ".... The Anarchists .... were
anarchists because they did not believe in an Anarchical world....". So what essentially is
ANARCHISM seeks the abolition of the state and present day capitalism.
ANARCHISM is the philosophy that favours a free society organised along lines of voluntary
co-operation, individual liberty and mutual aid.
ANARCHIST society would be a decentralised network of communities and individuals
working together to satisfy their mutual needs for goods and services, while exploiting no-one,
and living in harmony with the natural world.
Every person has the right to make all decisions about his or her own life. All moralistic
meddling in the private affairs of freely acting persons is unjustified.
GOVERNMENT is an unnecessary evil. All governments survive on theft and extortion,
called taxation. All governments force their decrees on the people, and command obedience
under threat of punishment.
The principal outrages of history have been, and continue to be, committed by governments.
On the other hand, every advancement of thought, every betterment in the human condition,
has come about through the practices of voluntary co-operation and individual initiative.
ANARCHISM implies co-operation, individual freedom and responsibility.
The origins of the word may be classical, but the anarchist impulse is older still. Anarchists
are fond of seeing elements of their philosophy in the words of Lao Tzu, in the beliefs of
Diogenes and the school of cynics. In social and historical terms Anarchism rears its head in
parallel with the birth of the state and the emergence of political, social and economic
In more modern times there were elements of Anarchist belief among the Diggers and the
early writings of Gerrard Winstanley such as 'The True Leveller's Standard Advanced' in the
years following the English Civil War:
".... In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation'; for Man had Domination given to him over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was said in the beginning that one branch of mankind should rule over
The Diggers or True Levellers derived their ideas from a literal interpretation of Christianity
which can be traced back to the Peasants' Revolt and John Ball, who is believed to have said:
"When Adam delved and Eve span
Who was then the gentleman?"
The Diggers also had absorbed other ideas such as the myth of 'the Norman yoke' and ideas
such as 'Reason' and a humanism derived from the renaissance.
Such rationalism was to re-emerge in the years of the American and French revolutions in the
works of Jefferson, Paine and William Godwin. Godwin's great magnum opus was his
'Enquiry concerning Political Justice' published in 1793. This work had a great influence upon
Shelley and his circle. However, Pitt's government of the day did not deem the revolutionary
work to be so dangerous as to warrant suppression, as at three guineas a copy it was too
expensive to be read by working people. Tom Paine's 'Rights of Man' had no such lenient
treatment, resulting in his trial in absentia and condemnation for high treason.
The ideas of the enlightenment were at work in the minds of the American colonists during
their revolutionary war. The American Constitution has been called the greatest conspiracy
against Government in modern times. American anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker, editor
for 30 years of the Anarchist-Individualist paper 'Liberty', claimed Anarchists were simply
"....unterrorised Jeffersonian Democrats...." who believe "....the best government is that which
governs least, and that which governs least is no government at all...".
Tucker's concern to speak the truth in plain language, to maintain an ethical anarchism
distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable means and ends brought him into conflict
with revolutionists and the class struggle anarchists of this day and earned him the nickname
'The Pope'. His antagonists included those like Johann Most, who gloried in talk of dynamite
and bombs, and people such as Alexander Berkman who spent 15 years in prison for his
attempted assassination of the Industrialist steel boss Frick.
On this side of the Atlantic, Anarchism developed out of social movements such as the
Bakunist faction which was expelled in 1872 from the First International and the various
attempts to unionise peasants and workers in France, Italy and Spain and other countries. The
writer Proudhon was the first person to call himself an Anarchist, in his book 'What is
Property?' published in 1840. The same book contains Proudhon's most remembered words,
often mis-attributed to Marx, and quoted out of context, "Property is theft". Proudhon also
said in the same work that 'Property is liberty'. Proudhon was fond of such paradox and a
frequent user of invective, as his definition of government illustrates:
".... To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated,
regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored,
commanded; all by creatures that have neither the right, nor wisdom, nor virtue. To be
governed means that at every move, operation or transaction one is noted, registered, entered
in a census, taxed, stamped, priced, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, recommended,
admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected......Then at the first sign of resistance or
complaint, one is repressed, fined, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garrotted,
imprisoned, shot, machine-gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and
to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged and dishonoured. That is government, that is its
justice and its morality".
Followers of Proudhon, known as Mutualists, were active participants in the Paris Commune
of 1871. Theirs was an Anarchism of small artisans and workshops, where individual
craftsmen and workers could govern themselves and exchange their goods.
Another 19th century figure famously associated with Anarchism was Bakunin. He was a
perceptive critic of both Marx and Marxism.
"Marx is an authoritarian and centralising communist. He wants what we want, the complete
triumph of economic and social equality, but he wants it in the State and through the State
power, through the dictatorship of a very strong, and so to say, despotic provisional
government, that is by the negation of liberty".
The class struggle Anarchist Collectivism, associated with Bakunin, which emerged from the
First International, where Marxism split from Anarchism over the question of political
activism, led to the development of Anarcho-Syndicalism. Anarcho-Syndicalism envisaged the
workers using their trade unions to take over society by means of a general strike, and then
administering it through the confederal organisation of the unions. This form of anarchism
saw its greatest extent in Italy, France and Spain during the closing years of the 19th century
and the early years of the 20th. The CGT in France, which still exists as a Communist
dominated Labour confederation, was in fact founded by Anarchists and Anarcho-Syndicalists.
In Spain the CNT, whoe membership approached 2 million workers in 1937, not only created
a social revolution in Catalonia in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, but involved something
in the region of 6-8 million people in a social experiment of worker controlled collectives and
peasant-run collective farms, villages and collectivised rural towns. This social experiment
was ended not by internal contradictions but by force of arms with the defeat of the republic.
The period of 1890 to 1910 saw an ongoing and fierce class struggle in European society.
Some Anarchists became advocates of 'propaganda of the deed', which included assassinations
and bombings. Public perception of Anarchism remains to this day tainted with the image of a
black-cloaked and hatted individual wearing a beard and carrying a bomb. Such illustrations
featured frequently in popular papers of the day, but needless to say were caricatures of the
truth. Other social and nationalist movements of the day were just as quick to resort to force
as frustrated anarchists, for example the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Serbian Nationalists,
more recently the Zionists who founded the state of Israel, the contemporary IRA and Moslem
fundamentalists in various parts of the Islamic world.
Anarchism in Great Britain had its precursors in the likes of Winstanley and Godwin.
However, it was in the 1880s that Anarchist papers and journals started to appear. 'Liberty',
Benjamin Tucker's paper, had a number of subscribers in this country from 1881 until its
demise in 1907. Kropotkin, in exile in London from 1866 until 1917, was involved along with
Charlotte Wilson (Anarchist and executive member of the Fabian Society) with the
establishment of The Freedom Press as publisher of books and the journal 'Freedom'. The
Freedom Press has existed since then as a publisher of Anarchist books and periodicals,
continuing to publish the fortnightly 'Freedom' and the more recently established quarterly 'The
Raven'. William Morris and the Socialist League also had much involvement with Anarchists
during the 1880s and 1890s. The Socialist League itself eventually became an anarchist
organisation and its paper 'Commonweal' an anarchist paper as a result of successful 'entryism'
The Boer War marked a very bleak period for the socialists and anarchists with their meetings
disrupted by jingoistic crowds and sales of their journals in decline.
Radical fortunes improved during the boom years preceding the First World War. This was
the era of the Syndicalist revolt with a wave of strikes and journals such the 'The Syndicalist'
being founded. This brief flowering came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the First
World War. Again jingoistic crowds made public meetings dangerous. The government
suppressed anti-war journals, including 'Freedom'. The outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution
in October 1917 further attracted militants away from Anarchism and into the ranks of what
was to become the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The Freedom Press continued to publish 'Freedom', but even this was suspended after 1927. It
was not until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and Revolution and British Anarchists
were able to resume regular publication of a paper.
It is true, at least in part, that much of the modern Anarchist movement arose out of contact
and involvement with the various Freedom Press journals: 'Freedom' (1886-1927), 'Freedom
Bulletin' (occasional 1927-30s), 'Spain and the World' (1936-1939), 'War Commentary for
Anarchism' (1939-1945), and 'Freedom' (1945 to date). Many of the different groups now in
existence originally defined themselves by some split with the group and opinions connected
with Freedom. This is true of Solidarity Federation. Originally the Syndicalist Workers'
Federation, then DAM, now Solidarity Federation. It is also true of Black Flag; the late
Albert Meltzer was originally a Freedom writer. The same applies to the magazine 'Green
Anarchist' established with the help of the late Alan Albon, who for many years wrote the 'land
notes' column in 'Freedom'.
However, there are important exceptions:
The organisation and magazine called 'Solidarity', which emerged from a milieu of ex-Trotskyists who ditched Trotskyist politics for Libertarian and Anarchist politics in the 1960s.
The Peace movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a rich source of recruits to the Anarchist
movement. People were attracted to Anarchism by its rejection of the military and nuclear
state and by its commitment to 'direct action' at a time when the Labour Party Leadership was
pledged not to "....go naked to the conference table...".
The 1960s also saw many people drawn into Anarchism through Squatting and campaigns
related to the lack of housing. This was and is an area where 'direct action' can offer if not a
solution at least a potent and visibly dramatic campaign tool. Empty private and council
properties in London were occupied by homeless people. Many established housing co-operatives originated from squats which gained legal status.
Anarchism has long attracted artists and intellectuals to its ranks. Some of the more well-known people who have been involved with Anarchism include Pissaro, Camus, Herbert Read,
Augustus John, Paul Goodman, John Cage, Noam Chomsky. Anarchism has long had an
influence among avant garde art, cultural and musical. Some good examples of this are the
Surrealist movement and the Situationists, the Beat poets and more recently Punk music.
Perhaps the most influential and best known Britist Anarchist, one associated with the
Freedom Press, and who carries forward the traditions of Kropotkin and William Morris, is
Colin Ward. Hist best known work is 'Anarchy in Action' and this was essentially a distillation
of ideas from the monthly 'Anarchy', which he edited from 1961 until 1970. 'Anarch in Action'
really touches on the full range of concerns of modern Anarchists and I would suggest people
in general, as can be seen by the chapter titles:
* Anarchy and the State
* The Theory of Spontaneous Order
* The Dissolution of Leadership
* Harmony Through Complexity
* Topless Federations
* Who Is To Plan?
* We House, You are Housed, They are Homeless
* Open and Closed Families
* Schools No Longer
* Play as an Anarchist Parable
* A Self-Employed Society
* The Breakdown of Welfare
* How Deviant Dare You Get?
* Anarchy and a Plausible Future
To return to Anarchists presently pursuing their ideals. The biggest planned annual event is
the Anarchist Bookfair, which in reality is something of a gathering, conference, social
meeting and bookfair rolled into one. The gathering is informal because many of the groups
have differences of opinion both doctrinal and personal. It is ironic that a movement aimed
ultimately at a society based on voluntary co-operation should find this difficult.
The main groups active in Britain presently are:
Anarchist Communist Federation (Anarcho-communists)
Solidarity Federation (Anarcho-syndicalists)
Green Anarchist Network
The Scottish Anarchist
The Anarchist Black Cross (Prisoners' Aid)
The London Anarchist Forum
Anarchist Information Network
Anarchists are currently active in a wide variety of campaigns:
Land Access and Use
Work and Trade Unions
It is a movement still developing, with a coherent philosophy, a positive vision of a more free,
equal and fulfilling society, and a variety of strategies for achieving that society.
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