What are the uses of anarchism? The short answer is “not many.” Although anarchists have often been motivated by worthy aspirations and occasionally raised awareness of crucial issues, in general, anarchism is an ineffective way of improving the world. Anarchists are better dreamers than doers, and politics is the art of the possible. Although it may disappoint many on the left, a successful movement requires compromise, organization, and yes, even leadership, to actually get things done.
There are many variants and historical manifestations of anarchism, but characterizing all is a rejection of authority and hierarchy. Anarchists dream of a world without states, traditional political organizations, or any other structures that restrict individual freedom. Because they share such beliefs and goals with libertarians, anarchists are easily confused with them. In the American context, at least, the main distinction between the two concerns capitalism: anarchists view it as inherently coercive, while libertarians venerate it as the embodiment and guardian of individual rights. This has led the former to be viewed as left wing and the latter as right wing, but in reality, anarchists differ dramatically from other sectors of the modern left (just as libertarians differ dramatically from traditional conservatives and other factions of the modern right).
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century anarchism’s rejection of traditional political organizations and activity led to its involvement in various uprisings and rebellions, the most important of which was the Paris Commune. Anarchists also became associated with “propaganda of the deed”—“spontaneous” and “voluntary” actions that reflected the power of the individual and were designed to inspire others. Although these actions need not necessarily be violent, they often were: during this period anarchists were responsible for a series of spectacular assassinations and bombings. A czar of Russia, presidents of Italy and France, kings of Portugal and Greece, and a president of the United States all met their ends at the hands of anarchists. Despite their often spectacular nature, anarchist activities were almost uniformly unsuccessful. For example, the Paris Commune’s lack of internal organization, leadership, or agreed-upon goals left it prone to infighting and vulnerable to counter-attack; it was brutally crushed by the forces of counter-revolution. The most direct effect of assassinations and bombings, meanwhile, was to provide conservatives with a rationale for putting in place repressive measures against the entire left.
The ineffective nature of anarchism (including the violence it often entailed) and other utopian movements led most on the left to turn away from them by the late nineteenth century and instead focus their energies on the creation of organized and disciplined parties and trade unions. Lenin famously excoriated anarchists and other “left-wing communists” as victims of an “infantile disorder, incapable of perseverance, organization, discipline and steadfastness.” Their efforts, he said, were premature and counterproductive: “Anarchism was not infrequently a kind of penalty for the opportunist sins of the working-class movement.” In Europe, persistent and effective political organizing enabled non-anarchist left-wing movements to transform the working class into a potent political force that was eventually able to force ancien régimes to accept democratization and at least some public social provision. And in Russia, of course, organization and discipline enabled Lenin and his band of communists to seize power directly during a crisis.
During the interwar period socialist parties became the bulwarks of democracy in many parts of Europe. Defending democracy meant that socialists needed to win elections and attract the support of the majority, which would in turn require compromises, trade-offs and patience—none of which appealed to anarchists. And so during the interwar period, anarchists returned to attacking the reigning order, even though it was now a democratic one in which socialists played a significant role. Indeed, during this period anarchists not only engaged in uprisings, rebellions, and other violent activities, they also attacked the “timidity” and “moderation” of those on the left who defended democracy. While it is certainly true that interwar democracy faced more powerful foes on the right than on the left during those years, anarchists significantly weakened democracy in many places, most notably in Spain, where anarchist activity damaged and divided the left, provided fodder to the anti-democratic right, and helped pave the way for the civil war.
After 1945 the traditional, particularly social democratic, left helped put in place a postwar order that undergirded an unprecedented period of consolidated democracy, economic growth, and social stability in Europe and the West. Nonetheless by the 1960s many anarchist-influenced “New Left” and counter-culture movements (including punk and the Yippies in the United States, and squatters movements in many European cities) attacking the reigning “bourgeois, capitalist” order exploded onto the scene. While these movements did raise important issues—most notably the need to go beyond the political and economic achievements of the postwar order to consider social problems and injustices as well—they also exhibited some notable pathologies. Some praised the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro—hardly icons of freedom—and showed scorn for public opinion and for the “masses” who didn’t share their vision of the world. In addition, although vehement in their rejection of the contemporary order, these movements had no realistic plan for changing it and only vague and often apolitical alternatives to offer. As François Mitterrand once said of the leaders of the May 1968 student movement, when they “wanted to explain the motivations behind their demonstrations . . . what a mish-mash of quasi-Marxism, what hotch-potch, what confusion.”
At the end of the twentieth century, anarchist-influenced movements re-emerged on the left, most often under the banner of anti-globalization. Once again, these movements highlighted some critical issues, most notably growing inequality and environmental degradation, but had little to offer beyond that. Many critics, for example, have drawn parallels between the substantial influence enjoyed by a variety of right-wing groups in America and the theatrics and ephemeral impact of the Occupy movement. In his recent book, Barney Frank, for example, contrasted the National Rifle Association’s persistent grassroots organizing and resultant ability to mobilize supporters to flood lawmakers’ offices with letters and calls and to vote as a bloc, with the inclination of many on the left to “hold public demonstrations, in which like-minded people gather to reassure each other of their beliefs.” Frank goes on to argue that “if you care deeply about an issue and are engaged in group activity on its behalf that is fun and inspiring and heightens your sense of solidarity with others . . . you are most certainly not doing your cause any good.”
Although snarky, Frank is fundamentally correct. Although anarchism’s skepticism of authority and hierarchy and its desire to create a better world are admirable, its stateless, apolitical vision of that world is dangerous, and its tactics, ineffective. Moreover, too often this vision has led anarchists to reject democracy, since the majority of citizens have proven consistently unsympathetic to it. And too often anarchism’s tactics have served primarily to dissipate the left’s energies and leave it vulnerable to attack by its better organized counterparts on the right.
While anarchists are correct to remind us that the left must dream, we must always remember that it must also do. A left that criticizes the existing order without offering realistic plans for changing it or broadly attractive alternatives to it is always going to be defeated by its opponents.
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College.
This article is part of Dissent’s special issue of “Arguments on the Left.” To read its counterpart, by Marina Sitrin, click here.