Anarchists in America

A recent article by Ishaan Tharoor in Time magazine (“A Brief History of Anarchism: The European Tradition,” Dec. 31) seeks to enlighten readers about anarchism. Though Tharoor presents a decent overview of European anarchist history from the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, his understanding of modern anarchism is hampered by his view of anarchists as little more than historical curiosity or occasional nuisance.

Tharoor makes some minor errors worth ponting out. Though many anarchist terrorists arose from the desperate conditions of Tsarist Russia, Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by People’s Will, a revolutionary organization with primarily democratic socialist goals. Likewise, George Orwell’s Spanish Civil War experience was not as a participant in an anarchist faction, but as a member of a non-Stalinist, but still state socialist, militia (POUM).

Once his narrative gets past the 1930s, Tharoor’s errors deepen. “In the decades since [the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39],” he writes, “the allure of anarchism as a viable political system has faded.” If the allure of anarchism has faded, surely attacks by states and authoritarians must bear some responsibility. Anarchists were suppressed violently in Russia, the United States, Italy, Spain, really anywhere they were seen as a major threat to the established powers. In the meantime, states have killed millions of people, and even states that allow basic liberties to the privileged clamp down at every opportunity and demand obedience to the rulers’ programs of violent domination. Anarchism was attacked by every kind of statist, but could not be destroyed.

Tharoor writes “It can be argued be that the logical heirs to Goldman and her anti-government fellow travelers are, in some form, today’s Tea Party — only in the past half century has a distinction been made between the term ‘libertarian’ and ‘anarchist.’ But Sarah Palin probably hasn’t read Proudhon or Bakunin; nor did they likely have someone like her in mind.”

The prolific American anarchist movement developed roughly concurrent and in contact with European anarchism. It included figures like Josiah Warren, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Albert Parsons, and Voltairine de Cleyre.  Its logical heirs are today’s anarchists — those living in America and elsewhere.

The Tea Party is not anti-government. Though it is not politically homogeneous, its members want some kind of government. They probably wouldn’t disagree with the statement that they want a stronger government, just one that intervenes in different ways. Though Tea Party supporters sometimes show suspicion toward economic elites, they rarely hold anything close to the egalitarian goal that has been a part of anarchism since it became an “ism.”

The word “libertarian” indicates support for individual liberty — the freedom of the individual to live without unnecessary restrictions from authority. Tea Party supporters vary in how libertarian or authoritarian they are. But anarchists, realizing that political authority itself is unnecessary to a flourishing society, are consistently libertarian. Anarchists were actually the first people to use the word “libertarian” as a political label. Complete individual liberty requires that no person rules over another, and that interpersonal relations, including the organizing of defense against authoritarians, be undertaken on a basis of consent and mutual benefit.

Anarchists in America actively oppose the expansion of authority and work toward its dissolution. We take action against police brutality, ruling class conventions and authoritarian political movements. We counter military recruitment and war propaganda. We engage in labor struggles, including those overlooked by establishment unions. We take environmental concerns more seriously than trendy marketing campaigns. We create and maintain mutual aid networks, take steps to reduce interference by political, economic, or social authorities in our lives, and create media to explain anarchist ideas and showcase ways they’ve been put into action. In our daily interactions we seek mutually agreeable relations instead of contests among petty tyrants attempting to take advantage of each other.

There are reasons to expect the allure of anarchism to grow in the coming year. The blatant looting of society by corporate and government elites who fail to satisfy basic expectations, the wars that succeed only in bringing power and profit into certain hands, the crimes of governments revealed though WikiLeaks and social media — all these strain the tolerance of a populace developing a social outlook of live and let live, an awareness of privilege and equality, and the technical and economic ability to create spaces for previously suppressed ideas to grow and satisfy human needs.

In contrast to the state, which rests on domination through violence, terror, deception, and conformity, anarchists encourage a future where individuals flourish in freedom and consensual cooperation.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory