Our Dreams Get Things Done: A Response to Sheri Berman’s “No Cheers For Anarchism”
In the Fall 2015 issue of Dissent Magazine, Sheri Berman asks, “What are the uses of anarchism? The short answer is, ‘not many.'” Her article, “No Cheers For Anarchism,” questions the effectiveness of anarchists at achieving their political goals. Her supporting argument seems to be the standard accusation of anarchist disorganization; like hundreds of other critics from both the left and the right, Berman conflates our opposition to vertical authority and the state with the cliched caricature of anarchists afraid of organization in and of itself.
“Anarchists are better dreamers than doers,” Berman writes. “Although it may disappoint many on the left, a successful movement requires compromise, organization, and yes, even leadership, to actually get things done.”
Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College with a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. She has written two books examining the evolution of social democracy in postwar Europe. Given her extensive academic background in political theory, her brief treatment of the history of anarchism is surprisingly lacking; while she mentions various critics of anarchism by name, and even quotes from Lenin extensively, she skims over or doesn’t even talk about the anarchist movements in either the United States or Europe. No mention of the Industrial Workers of the World in the early decades of the 20th century. Not a single line about the work of German anarcho-syndicalists in the lead-up to World War II. The best we can get is a brief mention of the Spanish Civil War, of which Berman writes, “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.”
Berman accuses anarchists of refusing to compromise with movements and organizations on the left, to the detriment of those movements, but this is untrue. Anarchist-communists from the United States saw their deportation to the post-revolution Soviet Union in the 1920s as an opportunity to help grow the international communist project, only to be met with marginalization, and eventually, the Gulag; the aforementioned IWW organized mass general strikes with statist-left organizations through the late 1940s, stymied only by legislation and concentrated police repression; the 50s and 60s saw anarchists working with counterculture, civil rights and antiwar movements worldwide, only to see their friends and collaborators turn off, tune out and buy in to the yuppie generation of the 70s and 80s.
By the end of the century, anarchism returned to favor among anti-globalization activists; still more began to work in computer science fields, informing the open source activism of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and projects like Tor. Independent media sprang out of online anarchist infoshops. Anarchists collaborated with former Black Panthers to form an emergency response and first aid clinic in New Orleans. Anarchist praxis formed the backbone of Occupy Wall Street, turning it from yet another march against corporate greed into lasting occupations and movement incubators. Anarchism exists — though maybe not explicitly — in the ethos of leaderless, horizontal movements like BlackLivesMatter and the many student protests against university administrators all across the country. Kurdish rebels in Rojava and the Zapatistas alike hold anarchist ideals, even if they are not explicitly anarchist.
Contrary to popular belief, and counter to Berman’s assertions, anarchists collaborate with non-anarchists all the time, almost to a fault. Despite time and again facing betrayal, abuse, repression — and sometimes, even death — at the hands of those they collaborated with, anarchists have consistently sought out and made working connections with non-anarchists. At this point, the onus is not on us to prove that we are willing to cooperate with you.
Berman ends her argument by writing, “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.” Meanwhile, the only-recently-elected socialist-coalition SYRIZA government in Greece acquiesced to the demands of the Eurozone, and Bernie Sanders has spent six months on the campaign trail calling himself a socialist while arguing against classically socialist ideals like open borders. What’s more dangerous?