Sunday, January 01, 2012
A Call to Live the Revolution Now
Review of Anarchism and Its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein (AK Press, 145 pages).
Anarchism has had some impressive moments. Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magón in early 20th century Mexico, the Kronstadt Rebellion, Gustav Landauer and the German revolution of 1918-1919, Bhagat Singh’s anti-British campaigns in India in the 1920s, and the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s, to name a few. The moments, as infrequent as they may be, can be electrifying. But they tend to be short-lived, with the participants often imprisoned or murdered by the state and its confederates.
As proponents of a political philosophy that disdains power, anarchists often find themselves at a disadvantage against the authoritarian governments and groups that use coercion to keep their opponents at bay. The antipathy for anarchists extends as far as the written word. State officials and their corporate partners control the mass media, including the outlets that publish the official history books in which their leaders are portrayed as heroes, while anarchists and anti-authoritarians are often labeled terrorists and criminals.
Despite the contempt for anarchism by statists on both the left and the right, anarchists have been able to get their word out through the underground press. Independent publishing houses and, in more recent decades, university presses also have published numerous books on anarchism.
Whether written by historians such as Paul Avrich, the acclaimed American scholar on anarchism, or activists such as Errico Malatesta, the great anarchist revolutionary from Italy, the words and ideas inside these books can prove rousing. Often, though, when reading them, the stories feel remote.
The language, especially in the books written by the icons of the revolutionary anarchist era, also can seem archaic. This is not to suggest that contemporary anarchist writers and theorists are necessarily any easier to read. The poorly written essays and books by some modern-day anarchists have prevented readers from understanding anarchism and can harm the cause by making anarchism appear exclusive to the select few who can understand the jargon and stilted language.
Malatesta was a writer and publisher who sought to spread the ideals of anarcho-communism by appealing to common sense. And, for the most part, his essays, as translated, are highly readable. He produced newspapers and pamphlets in collaboration with various distinguished anarchist figures of the day. Malatesta (1853-1932) may not be as celebrated as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Mikhail Bakunin or Peter Kropotkin or Emma Goldman. But, as Anglo-Italian anarchist activist and author Vernon Richards reminds us, “For nearly sixty years, Malatesta was active in the anarchist movement as an agitator and as a propagandist.” (Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas, compiled and edited by Vernon Richards, Freedom Press, 1984).
Malatesta is not placed in the same category as these other anarchists because he did not conform to the pattern set by 19th century revolutionary thinkers and activists, argues Richards, who died in 2001. “He was, first of all, too good a revolutionary to even think of keeping a diary; and he was too active to be allowed to live the kind of settled life that would have allowed him carefully to file away his correspondence for posterity and the convenience of historians,” Richards explains.
The Cure for Authority
While Malatesta may not have dwelled on himself, he did write extensively about anarchism, capitalism, the state and other top issues of his day. In an essay on the importance of organization, Malatesta explains that “organization, far from creating authority, is the only cure for it and the only means whereby each one of us will get used to taking an active and conscious part in collective work and cease being passive instruments in the hands of leaders.” (Errico Malatesta: His Life and Ideas)
Through his focus on organization, Malatesta smashes the stereotype perpetuated by statists and uninformed observers who seek to equate anarchism with chaos. British anarchist writer Colin Ward explains that anarchism recognizes there are two kinds of organization. The kind that “is forced on you” and “run from above.” And there is the kind that “is run from below, which can’t force you to do anything, and which you are free to join or free to leave alone,” writes Ward, who died in early 2010. “We could say that the anarchists are people who want to transform all kinds of human organization into the kind of purely voluntary association where people can pull out and start one of their own if they don’t like it.”
Contemporary anarchist author and anthropologist David Graeber writes in his book Direct Action: An Ethnography that anarchists do not seek to seize power for themselves. “Rather, they wish to destroy that power, using means that are—so far as possible—consistent with their ends, that embody them.”
Anarchists seek to embrace what is known as “prefigurative politics,” or building a new world in the shell of the old. If a group wants to abolish hierarchy in the larger society, prefigurative politics requires the group to adhere as closely to that goal as possible.
In a recent essay, Graeber explains how the Occupy Wall Street movement has embraced the concept of prefigurative politics. “Zuccotti Park, and all subsequent encampments, became spaces of experiment with creating the institutions of a new society—not only democratic general assemblies but kitchens, libraries, clinics, media centers and a host of other institutions, all operating on anarchist principles of mutual aid and self-organization—a genuine attempt to create the institutions of a new society in the shell of the old,” Graeber explains.
A hundred years earlier, Malatesta was promoting the same philosophy. “We anarchists do not want to emancipate the people; we want the people to emancipate themselves,” Malatesta writes. “We want the new way of life to emerge from the body of the people and correspond to the state of their development and advance as they advance. It matters to us therefore that all interests and opinions should find their expression in a conscious organization and should influence communal life in proportion to their importance.”
The clarity of Malatesta’s analysis and the relevance of his message resonate today in the writings of anarchist author and activist Cindy Milstein. In her latest book, Anarchism and Its Aspirations, Milstein shows how anarchism is relevant to 21st century America.
Milstein and her publisher, AK Press, perfectly timed the book’s release. Anarchism and Its Aspirations arrived in 2010 as turbulence rocked the American state and its dead-end economic system was under duress. In 2011, more people began to lose confidence in the legitimacy of the state, culminating in the rapid rise of the Occupy movement. It was a year that gave people hope.
Dave Zirin, a sportswriter for The Nation magazine, was one of many who wished 2011 a sad goodbye. “When my first kid was born in 2004, a lot of people asked me (rather rudely, I might add) ‘How can you bring a child into this awful world?’” he writes. What was Zirin’s response? “This is the first year of her (and my) life where I feel like I can look those folks in the eye and say, ‘Because people across the world are waking up and fighting to make it a better place.’”
In the prologue to her book, Milstein writes of feeling “sorrow” about an era that began with so much exuberance—with the Zapatistas creating autonomous zones in Chiapas, Mexico in the mid-1990s and the Battle of Seattle in late 1999—but then evolved into a decade of the American state running amok in the 2000s. “I worry that in the face of this morass, anarchists are becoming increasingly nihilistic and far less concerned about ending social suffering,” she writes. “I get the eerie sensation that I might have to shelve my own aspirations for what anarchists can accomplish, just when we are needed more than ever.”
Milstein wrote the prologue to Anarchism and Its Aspirations before the Occupy movement caught fire. If AK Press were to issue a new edition of the book in 2012, she would probably update portions of the prologue. But the prologue would probably be the only section of the book that would require any major edits.
Despite the pessimism in the prologue, the rest of the book brims with confidence, as if Milstein knew the day of reckoning would soon arrive for the American state. As you read the book, particularly the sections on what anarchists can do to create sustainable communities, you will not find any signs of hopelessness. Milstein instills great confidence in her readers, inspiring them to act with a sense of urgency. At the same time, Milstein emphasizes the importance of anarchists using “means that point in the direction of their ends.”
“Prefigurative politics thus aligns one’s values to one’s practice and practices the new society before it is fully in place,” she writes.
Milstein, like most anarchists, believes a primary concern must be to dismantle all forms of authority and oppression. In other words, the existing system needs to be dismantled. And, like Graeber, Milstein believes anarchists do not seek to pressure governments to institute reforms. Rather, their goal is to destroy that power, using means that are consistent with their ends and embody them.
The Anarchist Spirit
Malatesta’s spirit can be felt throughout Anarchism and Its Aspirations. In 1922, Malatesta wrote that “by anarchist spirit I mean that deeply human sentiment, which aims at the good of all, freedom and justice for all, solidarity and love among the people; which is not an exclusive characteristic only of self-declared anarchists, but inspires people who have a generous heart and an open mind.”
Milstein writes that anarchism is indeed a spirit, one that “cries out against all that’s wrong with present-day society, and boldly proclaims all that could be right under alternate forms of social organization.” She focuses on “alternate forms of social organization” and explains how anarchists “participate in the present in the ways that they would like to participate, much more fully and with much more self-determination, in the future.”
Anarchists, according to Milstein, seek to infuse the “oppositional character” of the direct action movement with “a reconstructive vision.”
Milstein’s analysis and visions of an anti-authoritarian future correspond with the opinions of Malatesta and the major classical anarchist participants, whose views she dissects in the chapter titled “Looking Backward.” But the greatest influence on her political thinking is Murray Bookchin, the anarchist theorist who rose to prominence in the 1960s with the publication of many groundbreaking essays that were anthologized in the seminal Post-Scarcity Anarchism, a must-read for any serious anarchist.
Milstein credits Bookchin, who served as one of her mentors at the Institute for Social Ecology, with getting anarchists to reach a better understanding of themselves and their goals. More than ever, “anarchism is interrogating itself and all else for ways in which hierarchy and domination manifest themselves, or develop new forms under new historical conditions,” she writes. This shift within anarchism has resulted in a better understanding of the ways that freedom and domination interrelate.
Bookchin also helped to transform anarchism into a modern political philosophy, Milstein explains. “Bridging the Old and New Left, Bookchin did more than anyone to widen anarchism’s anticapitalism/antistatism to a critique of hierarchy per se,” she writes. “He also brought ecology as a concern to anarchism by connecting it to domination.”
Bookchin’s “unearthing” of the affinity group model in his research on Spanish anarchists, as described in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, was influential to the U.S. anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, Milstein contends. “The antinuke movement used civil disobedience, but infused it with an anarchist and feminist sensibility: a rejection of all hierarchy, a preference for directly democratic process, a stress on spontaneity and creativity,” she writes.
When that spontaneity and creativity are lost in the same, ineffective behavior, it is time for anarchists to question their strategies and tactics. Milstein explains that anarchists, unlike most other radicals, ask questions of each other publicly so as “to grapple in the light of day” with the dilemmas of their behavior and actions. She points to an article written by Ryan Harvey following the G-20 protests in Pittsburgh in September 2009. In the article, “Are We Addicted to Rioting?,” Harvey questions the wisdom of fellow anarchists who participate in street demonstrations simply for the adrenaline rush of going to battle against the police. “There’s too much at stake to waste our time and energy preparing for and executing these theater-like confrontations,” he writes.
Harvey argues it’s time to take anarchism out of the streets for a while and put it back into the communities. He writes:
“I want you to take my words seriously, because we have a lot of work to do, and most of it is not going to get done in the streets. It’s going to get done on the doorsteps, the libraries, the churches, the labor halls, the schools, the military bases, the parks, the prisons, the abortion clinics, the neighborhood associations, the PTAs. And whatever it is, it’s not going to be called Anarchism and it’s not going to look like what you think it’s going to look like. It’s going to be new, fresh, original, organic, unique, and real. And it’s going to be a combination of all of our society’s best politics, ideas, experiences, and sincerity. And we are going to help make it happen.”
Milstein emphasizes a similar message throughout Anarchism and Its Aspirations. It’s time to push beyond the oppositional character of the direct action movement, she asserts, by infusing it with a “reconstructive vision.”
As a proponent of prefigurative politics, Milstein calls for anarchists to move from shutting down streets to opening up public space, from demanding scraps from those few in power to holding power firmly in their hands.
Milstein superbly demonstrates how anarchism reflects “commonsense notions” of how everyone could live their lives together in nonhierarchical societies. Indeed, anarchistic values are commonsensical, she explains, or how most people would prefer to live their lives if not coerced, compelled or oppressed by forces outside their personal and social control.
Anarchism and Its Aspirations is available from AK Press. Click here to order the book.Share